Pakistan's Election Commission has upheld an election ban on former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his lawyer said on Tuesday, barring a main rival of President Pervez Musharraf from the January polls.
Sharif, who Musharraf ousted in 1999, was allowed back from seven years of exile last month and has been campaigning for the January 8 general election despite the ban, imposed this month for past criminal convictions he says were politically motivated.
Sharif had challenged the ban, but the Election Commission rejected his appeal, saying it should be filed with an election tribunal made up of judges who swore allegiance to Musharraf after he imposed emergency rule on November 3.
We told the Election Commission these tribunals are not properly constituted because that was done in consultation with the president but they said 'no, we cannot make an exception for Nawaz Sharif', Sharif's lawyer, Akram Sheikh, told Reuters.
Nawaz Sharif has taken a principled stand that he would not appeal before the PCO judges, Sheikh said, referring to a provisional constitutional order promulgated by Musharraf after he invoked emergency powers.
After imposing the emergency, Musharraf fired dozens of judges, including chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who were seen as hostile to his October re-election by legislators while still army chief.
Musharraf then swore in the remaining and new judges under the provisional constitutional order. He later stepped down as army chief and was sworn in as civilian president after his handpicked judges rubber-stamped his re-election.
He revoked emergency rule and restored the constitution at the weekend but has ruled out an opposition demand for the reinstatement of the sacked judges, some of whom remain under house arrest.
Election authorities have also barred Sharif's brother, Shahbaz, from running, citing financial irregularities.
A spokesman for Sharif said the rejection of the Sharifs' nominations was part of government plan to rig the election.
This rejection is meant to send a signal to supporters of Nawaz Sharif that their party is not going to come to power, said the spokesman, Nadir Chaudhri.
The vote is a three-way race between former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned from eight years of self-imposed exile in October, Sharif's party, despite his exclusion, and the party that has ruled under Musharraf and backs him.
Analysts expected a hung parliament.
Sharif initially called for a boycott but his party later decided to contest the election after Bhutto decided to run.
Nevertheless, Bhutto and other politicians have voiced fears that a compliant judiciary will allow Musharraf to rig the polls with a network of local chiefs, bogus votes and excluding opposition supporters from ballot stations.
Addressing about 10,000 supporters in Mirpurkhas town in her home province of Sindh, Bhutto said the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League was heading for defeat, if vote was not rigged.
Nobody wants to come near them because they know a dead body smells and they are politically dead, she said.
Musharraf has rejected accusations of rigging and said all political parties have a level playing field.
Bhutto, who heads the country's largest party, the Pakistan People's Party, has warned of protests if the vote is rigged, raising the prospect of post-election chaos in the nuclear-armed country seen as vital to U.S.-led efforts to combat terrorism.
(Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)