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Caretaker Government to Take Office Ahead of Pakistani Elections


Pakistan's parliament is scheduled to dissolve itself at midnight Thursday to make way for a new caretaker government to oversee January elections. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad that while President Pervez Musharraf tries to make the elections appear credible despite emergency rule, his opponents are busy uniting against him.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz addressed a final cabinet meeting late Thursday before the new caretaker government takes office Friday. State television broadcast footage of Aziz praising officials for their accomplishments.

"We have promoted press freedom and freedom of expression. No government has been more tolerant that ours in hearing criticism," Aziz said.

The claims of progress by the close ally of General Musharraf stood in stark contrast to political opposition leaders, who say security forces continue to pursue the president's critics.

Ahsan Iqbal is a spokesman for the political party of exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He spoke to VOA by telephone.

"After elections were announced, they should have put an end to all these arrests of opposition leaders," said Iqbal. "But they are still hounding us; they are still searching for us. I am in a hideout. The entire leadership of the PML-N is either in jail or in detention or they are in hiding. So how can there be fair and free elections in the country."

While the government crackdown is succeeding in preventing mass protests, its success is unifying political opposition leaders.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has confirmed that she has spoken with Mr. Sharif about forming a broad coalition to challenge General Musharraf.

"I think that we the leaders of political parties need to exchange ideas of what could be a possible agenda for all of us to rally around," she said.

Ms. Bhutto made the comments in a phone interview with Dawn News, an independent television news broadcaster that returned to local airwaves Thursday for the first time since emergency rule was imposed November 3.

Dawn and a few other stations have agreed to abide by a new code of conduct that bars news coverage that directly criticizes President Musharraf, the army or the judiciary. Criticism of the president's policies is allowed.

News anchors and hosts can face heavy financial penalties and up to three years in prison if any part of their shows is considered in violation of the law. Most political reporters for the networks have not returned to work.

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