LAHORE, Nov 29: The All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) drew a pungent line between the pro- and anti-polls forces in the country on Thursday when it announced a boycott of the general election scheduled to be held on Jan 8.

Briefing the media about the decisions taken at the APDM meeting, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said the decision to boycott the election being held under the Provisional Constitution Order was taken unanimously.

Mr Sharif, who was accompanied by the leaders of other parties in the alliance, said candidates belonging to the APDM who had filed nomination papers would withdraw from the contest on the last date for the withdrawal of papers announced by the Election Commission – Dec 15.

The announcement came on the day when President Pervez Musharraf took oath as the civilian president and said he would lift the emergency, in place since the third of this month, on Dec 16. The retired general seemed to have planned it perfectly since he still had the option of postponing the polls should it become necessary in the wake of a boycott by the whole of the opposition.

However, according to observers, the president could still accept all APDM demands but one — restoration of the pre-Nov 3 judiciary.

The APDM boycott of polls was a victory for Jamaat-i-Islami and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf that had been putting pressure on the main components in the APDM, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), to stay away from the election in an attempt to deprive the exercise of credibility. Many nationalist parties in the NWFP and Balochistan, which were a part of the APDM, also favoured a boycott. However, sources said the Awami National Party made the withdrawal from the election conditional on a similar decision by Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, its rival party in the NWFP.

The announcement had the potential of seriously jeopardising the election exercise, with the Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman now holding the key. The APDM leaders on Thursday indicated just how important Ms Bhutto and Maulana Fazl had become in the equation when they said they were going to set up special committees to win the two leaders over to their side.

Both Ms Bhutto and the Maulana have so far shown an inclination to take part in the polls, even though Ms Bhutto had in her statements not ruled out a boycott.

In case they could now be persuaded to join the opposition boycott of the polls, it could render the election process meaningless, with only the official Pakistan Muslim League and its ally Muttahida Qaumi Movement along with smaller parties such as Pakistan Muslim League (Functional) and Pakistan People’s Party (Sherpao) left in the fray.

The APDM decision to stay away from the polls came amid speculations that Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan from exile in Saudi Arabia last Sunday might have been a result of some kind of a deal between him and President Pervez Musharraf brokered by the Saudi rulers. At least the flurry of statements made by Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, the PML leader in the all-important Punjab and a candidate for prime minister’s office, over the past few days were illustrative of who he considered to be his main opponent in the coming election.

He went on pointedly criticising the PPP, ignoring the danger that existed closer to him in his home province, the person of Mian Nawaz Sharif. Indeed his remarks were taken by some observers as a reconfirmation of another deal – between Ms Bhutto and President Musharraf.

Amid meek PPP explanations that the party was contesting the polls in protest or because it didn’t want to give the official side a walkover, some political pundits insisted that, come what may, Ms Bhutto was honour-bound to fight the Jan 8 election. Even if that was the case, she will find it hard to stand her ground in the face of the pressure mounted on her by the APDM and by other groups in the country, such as lawyers.

The APDM meeting on Thursday formed a five-member committee to convince Ms Bhutto and Maulana Fazl to join hands with the APDM in rejecting the electoral process. The committee comprises Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan, Mahmood Khan Achakzai, Abid Hasan Minto and Nawabzada Mansoor Ali Khan.

“I’ll call her (Ms Bhutto) just now to fix an appointment for tomorrow,” Mr Sharif said.

Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal President Qazi Husain Ahmad said he would be in the committee to be constituted to persuade Maulana Fazl to boycott the polls. For now MMA nominees for the polls, except for those belonging to JUI(F), will withdraw their nomination papers, he said.

The meeting on Thursday decided to convene a national conference soon to discuss a joint strategy to ensure an ‘awami’ or mass boycott of the polls on Jan 8. Besides political parties other civil society groups such as labour unions, lawyers, students, etc, will be invited to the meeting.