Pakistan's Election Commission barred former prime minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday from a Jan. 8 general election because of his criminal record but he did not rule out his party's participation in the vote.
Hours after his disqualification, Sharif met another former prime minister and opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto. They said they would present the government demands to ensure a fair election and their parties' participation.
A united opposition boycott would rob the vote of credibility and prolong instability in the nuclear-armed country that is crucial to U.S. efforts to fight al Qaeda and bring peace to neighboring Afghanistan.
Sharif, a two-time prime minister overthrown in 1999 by the then army chief, Pervez Musharraf, has threatened to boycott the Jan. 8 election but had nonetheless registered to run.
He brushed off his disqualification by an election official who cited his convictions and vowed to fight on against what he called dictatorship.
"Let them reject the nominations ... 10 times or even 100 times. I will serve the people with much more vigor and resolve," he told his supporters in Islamabad.
Sharif, who returned from seven years of exile on Nov. 25, says the convictions secured against him in the wake of his removal were politically motivated. The constitution bars convicted people from running for parliament.
Sharif's party said the disqualification was the result of pressure on election officials by President Musharraf. "This is the most blatant form of rigging possible," said Sharif's spokesman, Nadir Chaudri.
Election officials barred Sharif's brother, Shahbaz, from running last week, citing financial irregularities.
Sharif was convicted of hijacking and terrorism and sentenced to life in prison in 2000 for trying to turn away an aircraft bringing Musharraf, whom he had dismissed as army chief, from overseas. The incident precipitated Musharraf's coup.
Sharif was later convicted on a corruption charge and sent into exile in Saudi Arabia.
"Charter Of Demands"
Sharif and Bhutto later said the election would not be fair under prevailing conditions and they would present a "charter of demands" to the government.
"In the present conditions there can be no fair elections," Bhutto told a news conference. "We agree that if we don't get a fair election public pressure must be mounted."
They said they would set up a committee to draft demands but did not give details, although Bhutto said one of her main demands was an independent Election Commission.
"We will give a charter of demands to the government, with a time-frame, and if these demands are not met we will move towards a boycott," Sharif said. "We don't want to boycott the election but we are being forced to."
Bhutto, who returned from eight years in self-exile in October, said her party was taking part in the election although under protest and it reserved the right to boycott.
Analysts expect both of their parties will eventually take part.
The major difference between the old rivals appeared to be on the question of judges Musharraf dismissed after he declared emergency rule on Nov. 3.
The judges seen as hostile to Musharraf were about to rule on the validity of his re-election by legislators in October that the opposition said was unconstitutional as he was a serving army officer at the time.
Sharif is demanding that Musharraf reinstate the sacked judges but Bhutto said those still being held under house arrest should be released and the new parliament could decide if they get their jobs back.
More than 5,000 activists held under the emergency have been freed but a small number of judges and lawyers, including Iftikhar Chaudhry, the former chief justice who defied Musharraf's bid to dismiss him in March, are under house arrest.
Musharraf, who stepped down as army chief and was sworn in as a civilian president last week, has ruled out reinstating the judges but he has promised to lift emergency rule on Dec. 16.
Police stopped U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson from meeting the most prominent detained lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, a former cabinet minister under Bhutto who shot to prominence this year when he acted as Chaudhry's lawyer, an embassy spokeswoman said.