Judge takes Pakistan step closer to historic polls

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistan's top court on Wednesday threw out a petition from a populist cleric seeking to dissolve the election commission, bringing the country a step closer to holding historic polls.

Although no date has been announced, the nuclear-armed country of 180 million is due go to the polls by mid-May - marking the first time a democratically elected government would have seen out a full term in the country's history.

The government and the opposition are publicly united that elections must be held on time, but politicians have fanned fears about a delay by claiming conspiracies are being hatched to postpone the polls.

Critics warned that there was a further risk to holding elections on time if the Supreme Court had accepted the petition from cleric Tahir-ul Qadri, who has unsettled politics by whipping up support for sweeping, pre-electoral reforms.

He returned suddenly last month after years living in Canada to lead tens of thousands of people in the largest political rally seen in Islamabad for decades.

His critics said he was working at the behest of the military, allegedly plotting to install an extended caretaker administration and delay the elections.

Qadri called off the protest after reaching a face-saving deal with the government and last week asked the Supreme Court to dissolve and reconstitute the electoral commission.

But the court threw out the petition on the grounds that Qadri was a dual national and not entitled to stand for election and unable to prove how the current electoral commission violated his fundamental rights.

"The petition is dismissed," said Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.