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Musharraf rival drops boycott bid

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif backpedals, to let his party participate in February elections in order to challenge them later.

KARACHI, Pakistan - Bending to political realities, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif abandoned his threat to boycott next month's parliamentary elections, agreeing yesterday to allow his party to compete in the Jan. 8 vote aimed at restoring democratic rule.

His decision means both major opposition parties, the other headed by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, will contest next month's vote.

But the move marks an embarrassing, if not unexpected, about-face for Sharif. The two-time prime minister had insisted his party would not put up candidates unless President Pervez Musharraf reinstated the judges fired on Nov. 3 when he suspended the constitution and imposed a state of emergency.

Restoring the former judiciary has been the central demand of lawyers, judges and students who have been at the forefront of small but tenacious demonstrations against Musharraf.

Musharraf has repeatedly said the deposed judges will not be allowed back on the bench. He has promised to lift the state of emergency on Dec. 15.

Some of the country's most senior lawyers and judges remain in jail or under house arrest, and Sharif had been the most prominent politician to threaten a boycott if they were not reinstated before the vote. But he was unable to persuade Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, to join him in a sitting out the election.

Faced with the prospect of the myriad opposition parties exploiting his absence from the campaign, Sharif bowed to pressure from candidates within his party who are eager to run.

Both main opposition leaders have claimed, without providing proof, they believe the election will be rigged in favor of parties loyal to Musharraf. The president's supporters celebrated Sharif's decision, arguing that the participation of the two main opposition parties now certifies the legitimacy of the election.

The country's election commission has barred Sharif from running as a candidate himself, citing a criminal conviction stemming from his activities as prime minister in 1999 when he tried unsuccessfully to stave off the coup that brought Musharraf to power.

But most analysts here say the participation of Sharif's party will take votes from Musharraf backers, thereby boosting Bhutto's prospects of becoming prime minister.

The decision by the two main parties to run has stoked a sense that Pakistani politics remains in the grip of long-standing personal rivalries and power struggles.

"Benazir's party became popular by confronting the establishment, not compromising with it," says Iqbal Haider, a lawyer who heads Pakistan's Human Rights Commission and was a once a justice minister under Bhutto. "Musharraf was totally isolated and a boycott would have been the end of him.

"Now they have given him a life-saving injection instead of the kiss of death."