South Asia News
Pakistan polls to be held in February, says Musharraf available (3rd Roundup)
Nov 8, 2007, 17:35 GMT
Islamabad - Parliamentary elections will be held in Pakistan in February, President Pervez Musharraf said Thursday amid a growing outcry at his imposition of emergency rule.
While the pledge was rejected by opposition leader Benazir Bhutto as insufficient, Musharraf appeared to be slowly heeding domestic and international calls on him to restore democracy in the country of 160 million people.
'Elections will be held before February 15,' Musharraf told a meeting of the National Security Council, a state body comprising the country's top civilian and military leadership.
The current National Assembly lower house was due to be dissolved as scheduled as it completes its five-year term on November 15, the military ruler said.
Musharraf, an army general who came to power in a 1999 military coup, later also reiterated to reporters his intention to step down as army chief before starting a new term also lasting five years.
But he vowed to suppress the swell of demonstrations against his declaration of emergency on Saturday and the accompanying suspension of the constitution.
'All means will be used to control the protests,' Musharraf said, adding that resistance to the government would not be tolerated.
Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said the emergency decree will possibly be lifted in December.
Musharraf, a key ally in the US-led war on terror, won a further term in a parliamentary vote on October 6. But the results were withheld by the Supreme Court as it heard petitions challenging the right of a serving military officer to contest elections.
He has justified emergency measures in the face of rising militant violence and negative effects of an unruly judiciary, saying he could not allow the country to 'commit suicide.'
It is widely thought that Musharraf proclaimed the emergency to prevent a ruling against him. The move was accompanied by the sacking of the top judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Addressing a press briefing in Islamabad, Bhutto, who heads the liberal Pakistan People's Party (PPP), said the judges should all be reinstated.
'We will accept the ruling on the president's re-election only if it came from the real judiciary,' she said, referring to the 13 Supreme Court members who are currently under house arrest.
Lawyers, rights activists and opposition workers have condemned the gamut of emergency measures and staged daily demonstrations across the country.
Several people were injured Thursday when violence erupted at a rally in the north-western city of Peshawar, and more arrests were made there and in other parts of the country.
'Around 6,000 to 7,000 lawyers have so far been arrested and many of them are being tortured in police custody,' Supreme Court Bar Association spokesman Shaki Sultan told reporters in the capital.
Markets in several cities of the southern Sindh province remained closed as traders observed a general strike against emergency rule, while lawyers boycotted court proceedings across the country.
The protests are likely to grow in the coming days after Bhutto said her party, the country's largest, would join the lawyers' movement if the government did not hold elections by January 15 as scheduled.
Bhutto, twice ousted from power on corruption charges, rejected Musharraf's promise to hold the vote before February 15 as 'vague' and demanded that he shed his uniform within a week.
Moreover, her dialogue with Musharraf would remain suspended as long as the constitution was suspended, she said.
Despite months of backchannel talks with the president toward a power-sharing agreement, Bhutto announced that she would launch her resistance with a rally in Islamabad's twin city of Rawalpindi on Friday.
She also threatened to stage a long march to the capital from the city of Lahore on November 13.
As anger over the Pakistani leader's action spreads, the international community has intensified pressure on his government to restore democracy.
The Netherlands has already suspended financial aid to Pakistan while other Western countries, including Britain and the United States, said they were considering the option.
US President George W Bush telephoned Musharraf late Wednesday urging him to hold the elections as scheduled in mid-January and also to relinquish his post of army chief.
'I feel confident that President Musharraf heard the president's message,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Thursday. 'We would like to see him return to those elections as he said today he would do. The uniform is still an issue.'
But Musharraf on Thursday shrugged off the objections, saying 'the international community should not exert pressure on Pakistan.'© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur