Pakistani opposition in quandary over poll "farce"

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 22 (Reuters) Allies of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf are gearing up for an election due on January 8 while his opponents are still undecided whether to boycott polls they say will be anything but free and fair under emergency rule.

A Supreme Court stacked with friendly judges today dismissed the last challenge against his re-election as president, clearing the way for him to quit as army chief, but he remains under international pressure to lift the emergency rule in order to give the polls some credibility.

''Elections are going to be a farce,'' Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted in 1999, told Reuters earlier this week from exile in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea port of Jeddah.

The Election Commission announced a poll schedule this week, requiring the candidates to file their nominations by November 26 -- and the chances of Sharif being allowed back in time to post his candidacy are remote.

While their former leader languished in exile, turncoats in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML), the party co-opted by General Musharraf to form a political support base eight years ago, met yesterday in Islamabad to choose candidates.

''We will finalise our list of candidates latest by Saturday,'' Mushahid Hussain Sayed, secretary-general of the ruling PML told Reuters, adding that the party would like to see the emergency rolled back to prove it can win unassisted.

Authorities have freed thousands of opposition activists and lawyers in a first move to relax the emergency ahead of the poll.

But leading lawyers and judges who dared challenge Musharraf's authority are still in prison or under house arrest, and parties are strait-jacketed by bans on large rallies.

Yet the opposition has still to come up with a common course of action -- and the focus of attention has fallen on what Benazir Bhutto, another former prime minister, will do.

Musharraf let her come back to Pakistan last month protected from prosecution in old corruption cases she says were politically motivated.

Fearful he would lack support in the next parliament, Musharraf had turned to Bhutto, leader of the largest opposition party, the Pakistan People's Party, (PPP) in the hope that she would back him in return for a chance of sharing power after the polls.

Bhutto, whose homecoming was spoiled by a suicide attack that killed at least 139 people, struck an increasingly confrontational posture, however, once she got back.

The imposition of emergency powers on November 3 made chances of an alliance more remote, and Bhutto subsequently reached out to other opposition parties to agree what to do.

If there was no consensus, the PPP will decide on its own what to do, Senator Latif Khosa, a close aide to Bhutto, said.

LATE FATHER'S ADVICE While Bhutto has said she might boycott the polls, analysts believe she would be reluctant to present Musharraf and his allies with a walkover.

''It's a very difficult decision for a political party to stay away from electoral process and it seems People's Party is not likely to do that,'' Talat Masood, a former general-turned-analyst said.

Fazl-ur-Rehman, head of country's largest Islamist party, Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Islam (JUI), has also said he would not boycott the poll. Musharraf's camp have been trying to entice Rehman, like Bhutto, into some post-election arrangement.

Sharif's party -- confusingly also called the PML but generally referred to as the Nawaz League -- is insisting on a boycott, along with other smaller Islamist parties.

A boycott without the PPP wouldn't worry Musharraf, whose strategy is to marginalise Sharif and create something more akin to a two party system, analysts say.

Bhutto faced a similar choice in 1985 in an election called by Pakistan's previous military dictator President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, the general who deposed and hanged her father -- Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the country's first popularly-elected prime minister.

She chose to lead a boycott of the election -- and regretted the decision, saying later that she should have heeded the words of her late father.

''Never leave a field open, my father had said again and again,'' Bhutto wrote in her autobiography ''Daughter of the East''.

REUTERS PD AS1528

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