Musharraf allies stop NW province from spoiling vote

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ISLAMABAD, Oct 1 (Reuters) President Pervez Musharraf's allies today thwarted an opposition plan to dissolve one of Pakistan's four provincial assemblies in a bid to undermine the army chief's expected re-election next Saturday.

Islamist parties ruling North West Frontier Province had planned to dissolve the assembly in Peshawar tomorrow, but Musharraf's allies submitted a no-confidence motion against the NWFP chief minister, stopping him from calling for a dissolution.

''Now the chief minister can't advise the governor to dissolve the assembly,'' Mushtaq Ghani, leader of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League in the NWFP legislature, told Reuters.

US ally General Musharraf, leader of the only nuclear-armed Islamic nation, will seek re-election on October 6 from the two houses of parliament and four provincial assemblies. Despite slumping popularity he is expected to win thanks to the ruling coalition's parliamentary majority.

Once re-elected Musharraf has vowed to quit as army chief and become a civilian leader, and parliament is due to be dissolved by mid-November for a general election to be held by mid-January.

Unable to stop Musharraf through the ballot, an opposition alliance grouping the Islamists with the party of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif aims to spoil the credibility of the vote by resigning en masse from the National Assembly tomorrow.

If the NWFP assembly failed to participate in the election it would damage Musharraf's standing in a province on the front line of Pakistan's struggle against growing Islamist militancy, and in a region where anger runs deep over the president's alliance with the United States.

Today, a suicide bomber, disguised as a woman wearing a burqa, killed at least 15 people in Bannu, a town in NWFP, close to Waziristan, a tribal area regarded as a hotbed of Taliban and al Qaeda support.

REARGUARD LEGAL ACTION The opposition was also due to make a last-ditch effort to block Musharraf with a new Supreme Court challenge to his nomination three days after the court dismissed a series of earlier challenges.

Investors in Pakistan's stock market gave an enthusiastic welcome to the Supreme Court's dismissal on Friday of challenges to Musharraf's re-election with the main index closing 2.88 per cent higher today.

Investors are keen to see Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, continue policies that have brought strong growth and made the Karachi Stock Exchange boom.

Pro-democratic forces, led by a lawyers' movement that sprang up after Musharraf tried to sack the country's top judge in March, want to see a transition to fuller democracy without him, and a complete withdrawal of the army from political life.

Musharraf's image suffered another blow on Saturday, when police clashed with lawyers outside the Election Commission, and journalists covering the protest were also hurt.

The government suspended two senior policemen and a top city official over the disturbances following a call from the Supreme Court, which is investigating the violence.

Lawyers have nominated Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former Supreme Court judge who resigned in 2000 rather than swear allegiance to Musharraf, to challenge him for the presidency.

The other main candidate is Makhdoom Amin Faheem, from the Pakistan People's Party of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Musharraf has been holding talks with liberal-minded Bhutto for a post-election power-sharing deal to shore up his position.

Newspapers said he was also trying to break up the six-party Islamic alliance by bringing onside its largest component, Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Islam (JUI).

Bhutto has been living in exile since 1999 rather than face corruption charges but has vowed to return on October 18. One of her lawyers filed an application for bail today in case authorities arrest her on graft charges on her return.

REUTERS SKB KN1715

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