ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The party of former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said Sunday night that it would participate in parliamentary elections next month. The move means neither major opposition party will boycott, even though both say they believe the polls will be rigged.

Sharif’s choice to allow his party’s candidates to run came after he tried unsuccessfully to persuade another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, to join him in a boycott.

Sharif had argued that contesting the elections would only add credibility to a process that he has said is fundamentally illegitimate. Bhutto countered that a boycott would leave the field wide open for parties loyal to President Pervez Musharraf to sweep the vote.

In the end, Bhutto’s argument prevailed. But the opposition remains badly divided in its strategy for challenging Musharraf.

Bhutto and Sharif had announced last week that they would not make any decision on whether to boycott until they had presented Musharraf with a “charter of demands” laying out criteria for changes in the election process. Despite marathon negotiations, Bhutto and Sharif failed to reach an agreement on what the demands should be.

The central sticking point was whether the opposition would ask for the restoration of the Supreme Court judges who were fired last month when Musharraf declared emergency rule and suspended the constitution. Sharif had said the opposition should make that a priority before the Jan. 8 elections. Bhutto has said it could wait until afterward.

The two former prime ministers are Musharraf’s chief rivals. But they are also intensely mistrustful of each other, and Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule has not been enough to bring them together to forge a common front.

Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, said the party determined that boycotting without Bhutto’s support would be ineffective. Iqbal said the party planned to turn the vote into a referendum on whether the judges should be restored.

“The elections are being rigged,” Iqbal said. “Nevertheless, we should try to sabotage Musharraf’s attempt to institute a handpicked parliament to go along with his handpicked courts.”

Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, said the party welcomed Sharif’s decision to participate. “This is not the time to commence a boycott of the polls,” Babar said. “But the time will come for agitation.”

Bhutto has said she believes Musharraf plans to rig the elections and has indicated that she will lead her supporters in street demonstrations if he does.

Government information minister Nisar Memon said last week that all parties were welcome to participate in the elections and that the vote would be free and fair.

In a symptom of just how fractured the opposition has become, two smaller parties that have been members of an alliance led by Sharif said Sunday night that they would boycott the elections, despite Sharif’s decision to participate.

“We will not take part in elections until the judiciary has been restored,” said Ameer ul-Azeem, spokesman for the religious party Jamaat-e-Islami.

Sharif’s decision is a blow to the lawyers movement, which has led opposition to Musharraf all year. Many of the nation’s top lawyers remain in custody a month after they were rounded up in the hours after Musharraf declared emergency rule.

Musharraf said Sunday that the emergency would be lifted Dec. 15, a day earlier than previously planned.


Special correspondent Shahzad Khurram in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

AP-NY-12-09-07 2026EST

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