Pak parties kick off polls campaign
Pakistan's election campaign began in earnest yesterday, a day after President Pervez Musharraf lifted his unpopular emergency rule and restored the constitution.
The election commission was set to release the final list of candidates for the January 8 vote for parliament, which Musharraf's critics say has been effectively rigged against them during the six weeks of the emergency.
In a televised address late Saturday, the president insisted emergency rule had saved the nation, alleging there had been a conspiracy by unnamed people to undermine the country's democracy.
"Against my will and as a last resort, I imposed emergency rule and saved Pakistan from destabilisation," he said.
"I put my own reputation at risk, but I did it because I could not allow Pakistan to be in grave danger. It was painful and a most difficult decision."
Former premiers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were criss-crossing the country on Sunday, drumming up support for their parties. They are taking part in the election after failing to agree on a joint boycott.
Benazir Bhutto alleged Saturday that there were "big plans" in the works to rig the elections, a charge the president denied in his speech to the nation.
He pledged the vote would be "absolutely fair" and invited international observers to attend the election.
In addition to lifting the emergency, however, the president also decreed that measures imposed during emergency rule could not be challenged in the courts.
Curbs on the media remain in place and sacked anti-Musharraf judges will not be given back their jobs.
"He is behaving like a man who commits a crime and then exonerates himself," said Raja Zafar ul Haq, a senior official in Sharif's PML-N party.
"The period of emergency was short. But in 42 days, the poison he infused into the body politic will continue to have adverse effects for a long time to come," Haq told AFP.
The president kicked off months of political turmoil in March, when he suspend the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
Chaudhry has since been sacked and remains under house arrest. In his first official act after lifting the emergency, Musharraf swore in a new chief justice, Abdul Hameed Dogar, and other judges on the Supreme Court.
Musharraf is a key figure in the US-led "war on terror," and his Western backers had insisted that he lift the emergency before the parliamentary vote.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain said Saturday he had used a phone call with the president to call for a "level playing field" at the polls.
"The international community supports his wish -- and that of the people of Pakistan -- to hold free and fair elections," Brown said.
In addition to what he said was judicial interference, Musharraf repeatedly cited the threat of Islamist violence, which has killed hundreds this year, for imposing the emergency.