Nirupama Subramanian

Pakistan poll panel announces detailed schedule

Official promises transparent poll

Nominations to begin from today

ISLAMABAD: Announcing a detailed schedule for the January 8, 2008 parliamentary elections on Tuesday, the Election Commission said it would accept nominations from candidates starting Wednesday until November 26, leaving opposition parties with a tight time-frame in which to chalk out their strategies.

Simultaneously, the Interior Ministry said the judges of the Supreme Court sacked and placed under house arrest after the emergency were now free, that it had also released 3,500 political prisoners, and that the remaining 2,000 would be freed “soon.”

A Ministry spokesman declined to say if the jailed leaders of the Supreme Court Bar Association including its president Aitzaz Ahsan would also be released, contending that those charged for offences would have apply for bail.

But as the government gave numbers of arrests under the emergency for the first time and announced the release of large numbers, police baton-charged and jailed 150 journalists in Karachi, and 22 more in Hyderabad in the Sindh province, during a day of country-wide protests against the closure of two private television channels and other curbs on the media.

The Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) have both said boycotting elections is an option but want this to be a joint opposition decision.

The PPP central executive committee, which was meeting in Karachi late into the evening, was considering the options before the party, said spokesman Farahtulalh Babar.

“The boycott option is on the table,” he said, “The announcement of the schedule does not address the issue of free and fair elections. In conditions of martial law, in an emergency, with the Supreme Court sacked and the Constitution suspended, there is no possibility of a free and fair election.”

Election Commissioner Qazi Mohammed Farooq said the whole world was watching Pakistan, and it was his duty to hold a “transparent” election. “I assure that the election will be free, fair, transparent and conducted according to the law,” he said.

But rejecting his neutrality, the PPP said it “insists on a mechanism for a free and fair election,” adding that the party’s final decision would depend on the government’s response plus the views of its own party members, and would be taken in consultation with other opposition parties, he said.

Party leader Beanzir Bhutto was expected to hold a press conference in Karachi after the PPP meeting ended.

Raja Zafrul Haq, chairman of the PML (N), said his party would take a joint decision on whether or not to participate in the polls in consultation with other opposition parties.

“Within the next two days, we will make a decision,” he said. The party has also denied there will be any meeting between its leader Nawaz Sharif, in exile in Jeddah, and President Pervez Musharraf, who flew out to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday on a two-day official visit. The election announcement came as Pakistan and the world wait to see if Gen. Musharraf, who is likely to be sworn-in for a new presidential term over the weekend, will keep his promise to step down as Army chief prior to taking office.

Attorney-General Malik Qayyum said the swearing-in was likely on Friday or Saturday. The Supreme Court threw out five petitions challenging his candidacy in the October 6 election on Monday, and is to hear the remaining petition on Thursday, following which it is expected to order the notification of his victory in the election.

Within hours of the election schedule announcement, Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier (retd) Javed Iqbal Cheema said more than 3,500 persons detained since the imposition of the emergency were released on Tuesday, while 2,000 would be freed soon. This is the first that the government has given out the number of arrests it made from November 3.