ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Benazir Bhutto presented her election manifesto Friday, dimming the prospect of an opposition boycott that could undermine President Pervez Musharraf’s efforts to show Pakistan is returning to democracy.

Musharraf left open the possibility of working with Bhutto after the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections. Both are secular leaders who vow to take a tough line against Islamic extremism, and an alliance between the two would be welcomed in the West.

Another powerful opposition leader insisted Musharraf reverse a purge of the judiciary that allowed him to secure a new term as a civilian head of state. The president stepped down as army chief Wednesday under a plan to guide this nuclear-armed nation of 160 million people back toward democracy eight years after he seized power in a coup.

Bhutto, a two-time prime minister who returned to Pakistan from exile in October, was the first major political leader to present a platform for the election campaign.

“We’re worried about the elections, we have our reservations, but we’re going in under protest,” Bhutto said in an interview with Associated Press Television News. “We hope as we participate we can try and improve the situation.”

Musharraf was sworn in Thursday for a new five-year presidential term and quickly announced that he intended to lift a state of emergency by Dec. 16 and restore the constitution before the elections – key demands of his domestic critics and his Western backers.

Bhutto left open the possibility that her party could yet join a boycott of the ballot – a move that would deepen Pakistan political chaos, but win popular support for its advocates because of Musharraf’s unpopularity.

She is still calling for a shake-up of the election commission and the suspension of local mayors who she alleges will try to manipulate the vote.

But she has said shunning the contest would only leave the field open to pro-Musharraf parties, who insist they remain popular thanks to the country’s economic recovery.

Bhutto says a boycott would only make sense if the entire opposition agreed. That seems unlikely, given the deep rivalries between the country’s leaders.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has taken a much harder course against Musharraf, who ousted, jailed and then exiled him after the 1999 coup.

Sharif, who returned from exile Sunday, said Musharraf must reinstate the Supreme Court judges fired under emergency rule, to ensure the elections will not be rigged.

Musharraf dismissed the justices just before they were to rule on whether his new presidential term was constitutional. On Thursday, he accused them of a conspiring to derail his efforts to restore democracy. New judges have since approved his fresh mandate.

“We are saying: ‘Please, please for heaven’s sake restore the judiciary … Don’t force us to boycott the elections,”‘ Sharif told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

“If there (are) free and fair elections we can win,” he said. “But there is no point in Musharraf taking off his uniform or lifting emergency rule unless the judiciary is reinstated with dignity and honor.”

The manifesto of Bhutto’s left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party promised more funds for education, health and environmental protection. Cheap loans would help small businesses create jobs, she said.

Its white cover bears pictures of herself and her father, another former premier who was ousted and hanged in 1979 under Pakistan’s previous military ruler.

Under reforms introduced by Musharraf, and aided by generous foreign assistance in return for help against international terrorism, Pakistan’s economy has recovered.

But a long tussle with the country’s judiciary this year triggered a pro-democracy movement that culminated in Musharraf suspending the constitution and imposing emergency rule Nov. 3.

Musharraf has since released thousands of opponents arrested in the crackdown. All but one of the TV news channels initially blacked out are back on the air.

Those concessions have reignited speculation that he could team up with Bhutto after the elections, with the blessing of Pakistan’s U.S. allies.

A U.S. senator who met with Bhutto at her house in Islamabad on Friday said his congressional delegation was “encouraged” that Bhutto would not boycott the vote.

“We know how important it is that her party participate. We hope all parties participate. Otherwise it will be very difficult to put together … a government that really serves the people,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.

Some commentators say Musharraf has alienated the opposition to such an extent that he will struggle to survive alongside an assertive new prime minister.

Musharraf makes little effort to hide his disdain for Bhutto and Sharif, who he has blamed for bringing Pakistan close to bankruptcy when they headed the government in the 1990s.

In an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” he defended his use of emergency powers and suggested he might quit if the elections turned out badly for him.

He said agitation by opposition parties would not be tolerated. “Agitation means breaking down everything. Burning things … we will stop it. That is the way it is in Pakistan,” he said.

Musharraf answered sharply when pressed on his tough stance.

“In your country, maybe you don’t hang people. Here, we hang people. OK?” he said. “We will not impose what you have in your country in Pakistan.”

Asked about the chances of him sharing power with Bhutto, Musharraf said he would have to see “how things develop.”

“I have all the choices. If the situation develops in a manner which is absolutely unacceptable to me, I have the choice of leaving,” he said



Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Lahore and Munir Ahmad, Stephen Graham and Kathy Gannon and AP Television News producer Andy Drake in Islamabad contributed to this report.

AP-ES-11-30-07 1417EST


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