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Bhutto, Sharif parties may boycott Pakistan polls

Written by: Staff
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ISLAMABAD, Apr 7 (Reuters) Pakistan's mainstream opposition parties said today they might stay out of elections next year if their exiled leaders are barred from returning home and a caretaker government is not set up.

Former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, have been living in exile for several years and President Pervez Musharraf, who is widely expected to stay in office for another term after 2007 general elections, has vowed to block their return to power.

Leaders of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League met US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher yesterday and told him that their leaders must be allowed to take part in the elections.

''We told him (Boucher) these leaders must be allowed to return to the country and a caretaker government should be set up to ensure free and fair elections in the country,'' Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, a key aide to Sharif, said today.

''If these conditions are not met there is a possibility that we might boycott the elections.'' The marginalisation of Bhutto and Sharif has allowed the Islamist opposition to exert greater influence in Pakistan, analysts say, and an Islamist alliance forms the largest opposition grouping in parliament.

Boucher, who also met Musharraf, and Pakistan's new election commissioner and other politicians, stressed that Washington was interested in seeing fair elections and an eventual return to civilian rule.

Musharraf promised to step down as army chief by the end of 2004 but later backed out of his pledge, and presently he is constitutionally required to give up his uniform next year.

Musharraf is expected to be given another five-year term by the assemblies that emerge from next year's elections.

Bhutto and Sharif were bitter rivals in the 1990s, but formed the multi-party Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy after Musharraf came to power.

Sharif was ousted by Musharraf in a bloodless coup in 1999 and was sent to exile to Saudi Arabia, but he is now in London. Having lived in self-exile since 1999, Bhutto faces graft charges in Pakistan and abroad and faces arrest if she comes home.

REUTERS KD RN1405

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