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Pakistani Opposition Considers Alternatives After Protests Thwarted


Security forces in Pakistan have largely succeeded in preventing mass protest rallies since emergency rule was imposed on November 3. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad that political opposition parties are now discussing alternate ways to oppose President Pervez Musharraf, but are reluctant to boycott January's planned elections.

Opposition party leader Imran Khan is the latest outspoken critic of General Musharraf to be detained by police. Officers arrested the former cricket star at a university protest rally in Lahore Wednesday, days after he went into hiding to evade detention.

Lawyers, journalists and other groups continue to hold small-scale demonstrations against emergency rule. But Pakistan's opposition remains splintered, with nearly all top organizers in detention or exile.

That includes former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who has been placed under house arrest for a second time to prevent her from leading a mass protest against emergency rule.

Sherry Rehman, a spokeswoman for Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, says the party is now holding talks with other opposition parties about forming a broader coalition. The aim, she says, would be to force a restoration of democracy.

"We're in talks about a single-point agenda to restore democracy," she said.

Ms. Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan recently under a power-sharing deal with President Musharraf, now says she could no longer serve in a future government with him. But Rehman says the party is not ready to boycott the January elections, which General Musharraf says can be held perfectly well under emergency rule.

"That is a very major decision for a federal party with a large grassroots constituency," she said. "And there is pressure from our voters to not leave them unrepresented."

Ms. Bhutto has said that campaigning and holding polls under the emergency laws, which suspend basic rights, would be difficult.

But President Musharraf insists that not only are the country's emergency laws popular among Pakistanis, they will help ensure fair elections.

In an interview broadcast on state television Wednesday, the president invited outside observers to oversee the polls.

"Emergency is not meant to get a hold of opposition, prevent them from coming," he said. "We are going to allow any observers coming from abroad and seeing the elections - the fairness and transparency."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Western officials have called on General Musharraf to end emergency rule before the elections. In an interview with the New York Times newspaper published Wednesday, the General said he "totally" disagreed with Rice's request.

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