|After taking the oath of office as a civilian president, Pervez Musharraf (right) reviewed an honor guard in Islamabad. (aamir qureshi/afp getty images)|
Musharraf says he will lift state of emergency by Dec. 16
Opposing group says it would boycott elections
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - President Pervez Musharraf said yesterday he intended to lift emergency rule and restore the constitution by Dec. 16, adding that he had fulfilled his promise to bring democracy to Pakistan and calling on political parties to participate in January elections.
But Musharraf, who was sworn in as the civilian president one day after stepping down as chief of Pakistan's army, did not say he would reinstate the senior judges he fired this month - a key demand of several major political parties.
Late yesterday, in an immediate rebuff to Musharraf, a major opposition coalition said it planned to boycott the Jan. 8 elections, accusing the president of not going far enough to restore democratic rights. The coalition includes the party headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
"We have taken this decision . . . because we don't see the chance of a free and fair election under the prevailing circumstances," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a major religious party. He said all coalition candidates would withdraw their nominations.
Sharif said he would ask his main rival, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to join the boycott. But Bhutto was quoted on Pakistani television as saying a boycott would "accomplish nothing."
Plans for a boycott could set up a confrontation with Musharraf and threaten to suspend or discredit the election. In his speech, Musharraf said he would not tolerate "destabilizing" activities, hinting that such problems could lead to a new crackdown.
"The elections will be held according to the constitution. Do not try to stop them," he said in a televised address. He said that he had created a "level playing field" for all parties and candidates - mentioning Bhutto and Sharif by name - and that it was their "duty" to participate in the polling.
It was not clear whether Bhutto, the charismatic Pakistan People's Party leader who returned from voluntary exile last month, would agree to join forces with her longtime rival. Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League, was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999 and returned last weekend from a forced exile. The two politicians, both of whom registered as candidates for Parliament this week, have been sniping at each other. Sharif has taken a hard line on Musharraf, while Bhutto has favored conciliation.
Analysts said Musharraf has been counting on the divisions between them to weaken the opposition's position at the polls.
Musharraf, who took the oath as president wearing a formal black civilian tunic, told his guests at the presidential palace, and later the national TV audience, that he was proud of his efforts to bring democracy, economic stability, and social progress to Pakistan. He said that his plans had been "derailed by a conspiracy," making it necessary for him to impose the emergency but that now the transition was "back on track."
After taking the oath, he lashed out at Western critics, saying they are "obsessed" with a version of democracy that does not fit Pakistani society.
The issue that Musharraf has failed to address, however - and that could still undermine his vision of a controlled transition to democracy - is his firing of several Supreme Court justices. Although the Bush administration and other Musharraf allies have not demanded the judges' reinstatement, Pakistanis across the economic and political spectrum have made passionate calls for him to do so.
Musharraf has said repeatedly he will never restore those judges, who were deposed to clear the way for a validation of his reelection.