Pakistan sets parliamentary ballot for January

.ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistan’s government said Wednesday that parliamentary elections will be in early January, setting the stage for a test of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s campaign to rally moderates against rising Islamic militancy.

Musharraf, meanwhile, urged former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to put off her planned return from self-exile while the Supreme Court examines challenges to his presidential candidacy.

The two pro-U.S. politicians have been negotiating a possible political alliance in hopes of strengthening moderate forces and offsetting Musharraf’s unpopularity, which worsened this year with his failed attempt to fire the country’s top judge and from a first in extremist violence.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said a caretaker government would be set up to organize parliamentary elections that will be held “in the beginning of January.” He did not give a specific date.

“The elections will be held in a free and fair manner, and international observers will also be invited” to monitor voting, Aziz told reporters.

The announcement came four days after Musharraf won an easy victory in presidential voting by national and provincial legislators after opposition parties boycotted the ballot to underline their argument that he wasn’t a valid candidate.

The Supreme Court has ruled the results will remain unofficial until it decides on petitions challenging Musharraf’s presidential candidacy on the grounds that he also holds the post of army chief.

Few legal analysts expect the judges to disqualify Musharraf, who has said he will give up his powerful military position only after securing a new five-year term as president. He has governed since ousting a civilian government in 1999.