Mush to name caretaker govt: Oppn sceptical

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Islamabad, Nov 15: Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is expected to appoint a caretaker government today to oversee elections he has promised for January but which the opposition say will be a sham under emergency rule.

''We don't expect fair and free elections under General Musharraf and his mini martial law,'' said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's party.

Army chief Musharraf, struggling to secure another term as president, imposed emergency rule on November 3, suspending the constitution, getting rid of hostile judges, rounding up thousands of opponents and curbing the media.

With the United States and other allies demanding speedy steps towards democracy in nuclear-armed Pakistan, Musharraf promised to hold parliamentary elections by January 9, but he has not said when the constitution would be restored.

Nor has he said when the state of emergency would be lifted, insisting it was necessary to ensure a free and fair vote.

The opposition dismisses the notion of elections under a state of emergency. Bhutto said the possibility of a vote boycott would be discussed at an opposition meeting next week.

The National Assembly -- which critics say is a pro-Musharraf rubber stamp convened after what they say were rigged polls in 2002 -- completes its term today and a caretaker administration will be set up to organise elections.

Musharraf is responsible for appointing the caretaker administration and newspapers have tipped the chairman of the Senate, Mohammadmian Soomro, as interim prime minister.

The former banker is a member of the ruling party and is unlikely to win a wholehearted welcome from the opposition who are demanding a neutral caretaker administration.

Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan said consultations had been held and he was hopeful the caretaker administration, to be sworn in tomorrow, would be acceptable. ''There hasn't been any open round-table conference. Consultations are done privately through different channels and that sort of consultation has been done,'' he said.

But Bhutto party spokesman Babar said they hadn't been consulted. ''Even if the people are known to be of integrity and independent it won't make much difference because the entire environment of the election process is questionable,'' he said.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who last week warned against cutting aid to an ''indispensable'' ally, is due in Pakistan this week to press Musharraf to end the emergency.Many ordinary Pakistanis are despondent.

''It's utter confusion, we have no idea what's going to happen,'' said Rawalpindi businessman Mohammad Saleem. Pakistani shares were down in early trade on selling by nervous foreigners, dealers said.

Meanwhile, more of Musharraf's opponents are being detained -- joining thousands already under house arrest or in jail -- for defying his rule.

Syeda Abida Hussain, a former cabinet minister and former ambassador to the United States, was detained yesterday after she led a protest of a couple of hundred people in her hometown of Jhang in Punjab province.

Speaking to Reuters from detention, the Bhutto party supporter and outspoken critic of Musharraf was defiant: ''It's for the cause of democracy and the restoration of the judiciary, so I don't mind.

In for a penny, in for a pound.'' Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, said at the weekend he would quit as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president as soon as the Supreme Court, where judges regarded as friendly to the government have been appointed, ruled on challenges by legislators to his October re-election.

The attorney general said the court was expected to reach a ruling around the end of next week. Bhutto said Musharraf's promise to quit the army was too vague: ''We need a firm date''.

REUTERS
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