Sharif begins election campaign by attacking Musharraf

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Pakistan's election campaign was kick-started yesterday as former prime minister Nawaz Sharif began his hunt for votes, attacking President Pervez Musharraf and accusing him of bringing the country to the "verge of destruction".

Having failed to reach an agreement with another former premier, Benazir Bhutto, to boycott's next months parliamentary election, Mr Sharif hit the campaign trail, describing Mr Musharraf's rule as illegitimate and urging police and government officials to disobey the president's orders.

Mr Sharif, who has been told by the country's election commission that his candidacy is invalid, opened his Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party's campaign in the city of Faisalabad, saying: "Whether I am in the process or out of the process, the cause is alive." He will visit another five cities in the coming days.

Mr Sharif, who was ousted from office when Mr Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, had previously indicated he was ready to boycott the election as he believed they would not be held under fair conditions. But having failed to reach an agreement with Ms Bhutto on a unified position, his party clearly decided it did not want to leave the field open to her party or to the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), the ruling party which supports Mr Musharraf.

In the short term, Mr Sharif's decision will earn him criticism from other opposition politicians who have said they will not participate. Indeed, the 33-group All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) confirmed that its boycott remained in place and expelled Mr Sharif.

Qazi Hussain Ahmad, a leading Islamist politician and a leader of the APDM said Mr Sharif and his party had been expelled because it had "turned its back on the nation" by deciding to participate. "Our struggle will continue until the government reverses all the decisions taken by it after declaring the state of emergency," he said.

But both Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto have calculated that however skewed the conditions may be in Mr Musharraf's favour, they still have an opportunity to win sufficient votes to establish a majority of MPs in the national assembly and form a government. Rivalry between Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto, head of the Pakistan's Peoples Party (PPP), remains intense.

One of the key issues they could not agree on was whether to insist that the Supreme Court judges fired by Mr Musharraf when he declared a state of emergency on November 3 be reinstated before the ballot. Mr Sharif argued this should have been one of the two parties' conditions for participation but Ms Bhutto argued the judges should be returned to their positions after the election.

The ruling PML-Q also stepped up its campaign yesterday, launching its manifesto and selecting education as its top priority. It said it would be leading a mass literacy campaign in the country. The party - most of the members of which were recruited from Mr Sharif's party in the aftermath of the coup - will face tough competition from that of the former prime minister in the all important Punjab province, which returns around half of all the MPs. Ms Bhutto, whose main support is based in the southern Sind province, will also hope to pick up some votes in the Punjab, where the presence of both the "Q" and "N" will split voters.

Most analysts believe it is unlikely a single party will win a simple majority and that forming a government will require the establishment of a coalition. "I think that is what is most possible ... a hung parliament," analyst Nasim Zehra told Reuters. "The fact is that none of the parties, none of the groups, will be able to get a majority in parliament, so in a sense you can have a three-way situation."

* At least five children were wounded when a suicide bomber detonated a device close to a truck carrying children to school in north-west Pakistan. The attack took place near the Kamra military base north of Islamabad. The attacker was killed in the blast.

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