Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto hopes to forge an alliance with Islamists and other opposition parties to launch a campaign to force military president Pervez Musharraf from power.
U.S. ally Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, plunged the nuclear-armed country into crisis on November 3 when he declared emergency rule, suspended the constitution, rounded up thousands of opponents and curbed the media.
Bhutto, who had been in power-sharing talks with Musharraf for months, returned to Pakistan in October from 8 years of self-imposed exile, aiming to work with him on a transition to civilian rule.
But outraged by the crackdown, Bhutto said on Tuesday that her talks with Musharraf were over, and for the first time called on him to step down as president as well as army chief.
She also telephoned old rivals including Islamist alliance leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, whom police detained on Wednesday, to urge a coalition of interests, party officials said.
She's trying to unite all political parties on a minimum agenda to return the country to true democracy, Latif Khosa, a senator and aide to Bhutto, told Reuters by telephone from the eastern city of Lahore.
The minimum agenda is the ouster of General Musharraf and formation of a neutral government of national consensus to organize free and fair elections.
Musharraf, under pressure from allies and rivals to put the country back on a path to democracy, said at the weekend that general elections would take place by January 9. But he would not say when the constitution would be restored or the emergency lifted.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who last week warned against cutting aid to an indispensable ally, is due in Pakistan late this week to urge Musharraf to end the emergency.
But Musharraf has already rejected that call from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I totally disagree with her, he told the New York Times on Tuesday. The emergency is to ensure elections go in an undisturbed manner.
He also said Bhutto had no right to demand his resignation.
Musharraf told Britain's Sky News he had considered resigning but now felt he was the man to lead Pakistan to democracy. Sky, the last foreign news channel available on cable in Pakistan, went off the air shortly after broadcasting that news.
Pakistani shares ended 2.24 percent down on political worry while the rupee edged to a three-year low.
Police have used batons and tear gas to break up small protests in various parts of the country since the emergency was declared but there has been no major violence.
Police in Lahore stifled a procession by Bhutto on Tuesday, placing her under house arrest and bundling off clusters of supporters who had gathered to chant slogans.
Bhutto, who has been detained in Khosa's house in Lahore, said her party might boycott the election. She had also spoken to the aides of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, ousted by Musharraf in 1999, Khosa said.
But underscoring the difficulty of uniting a fractious opposition, students loyal to religious alliance leader Ahmed briefly detained Imran Khan when he emerged from hiding to lead a campus protest in Lahore.
A spokesman for Khan said the students had apparently felt that Khan, in hiding since Musharraf declared the emergency, was a threat to their dominance on campus and had tried to block his rally with scores of his student supporters.
Police said they had detained Khan as he left the campus.
Analysts say Bhutto's refusal to have more dealings with Musharraf had isolated the embattled president, though he retains the backing of the army and a disparate group of politicians expected to do badly in the polls.
The entire political spectrum is united to oppose him, said Talat Masood, a former general and a political analyst.
He is becoming more and more isolated ... such a situation is putting the army in a very awkward position, he said.
Many Pakistanis are gloomy about prospects and some are disillusioned with old politicians. Bhutto, for one, had come under fire for talking to Musharraf despite the way he came to power. She was also dogged by accusations of corruption during her two terms as prime minister.
Business is going down, the situation is volatile and people feel insecure, said Abbas Syed, who runs a Lahore IT business. But he said he did not support Bhutto: We need somebody new.