Pakistan Elections Set for Early January

( Newsvine ) - Pakistan's government said Wednesday that parliamentary elections will be in early January, setting the stage for a test of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's campaign to rally moderates against rising Islamic militancy. Musharraf , meanwhile, urged former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to put off her planned return from self-exile while the Supreme Court examines challenges to his presidential candidacy.

The two pro-U.S. politicians have been negotiating a possible political alliance in hopes of strengthening moderate forces and offsetting Musharraf's unpopularity, which worsened this year with his failed attempt to fire the country's top judge and from a first in extremist violence. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said a caretaker government would be set up to organize parliamentary elections that will be held "in the beginning of January." He did not give a specific date.

"The elections will be held in a free and fair manner, and international observers will also be invited" to monitor voting, Aziz told reporters.

The announcement came four days after Musharraf won an easy victory in presidential voting by national and provincial legislators after opposition parties boycotted the ballot to underline their argument that he wasn't a valid candidate.

The Supreme Court has ruled the results will remain unofficial until it decides on petitions challenging Musharraf's presidential candidacy on the grounds that he also holds the post of army chief.

Few legal analysts expect the judges to disqualify Musharraf , who has said he will give up his powerful military position only after securing a new five-year term as president. He has governed since ousting a civilian government in 1999.

Even before the formal announcement of the parliamentary elections, political maneuvering already was in full swing.

Musharraf has been talking with Bhutto about sharing power if their parties win enough parliamentary seats to form a governing coalition. Both are pro-American and have called for moderate forces to unite against a resurgence of Islamic militants along the Afghan border. Last week, Musharraf made a gesture to Bhutto by quashing corruption cases pending against her and other politicians. But a power-sharing deal is being resisted within the president's own party, whose leaders could be sidelined by a Bhutto comeback.

On Wednesday, during a taped interview shown on the ARY news channel, Musharraf urged Bhutto to delay her return until the Supreme Court rules on challenges to his re-election. Bhutto, who fled Pakistan in 1999 to avoid arrest for alleged corruption during her two terms as prime minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has said she plans to come home Oct. 18 to lead her party in the parliamentary elections.

"I would say she should not come before" the court verdict, Musharraf said, but added that the government had no plan to arrest her if she ignored his suggestion. When asked how would he react if the court disqualified him as president, Musharraf said that "we will cross the bridge when we reach it." Under Pakistan's constitution, Musharraf's current presidential term runs until Nov. 15.

In a development that could be a good sign for Musharraf , the government of North West Frontier Province dissolved Wednesday.

Wrangling within the coalition of Islamic parties that controlled the government exposed rifts that fanned speculation that one might join a new pro- Musharraf provincial government.

Religious parties have supported Musharraf in the past despite their strong criticism of his decision to ally with Washington after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the U.S.

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