Exiled leader considers political return to Pakistan

Posted in Broader Middle East | 04-Jun-07 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: International Herald Tribune

Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan People's Party, fled the country in 1999.

ISLAMABAD: Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is roiling Pakistani politics by talking of a power-sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf and by saying in an interview that she might return to Pakistan before the end of the year.

Threatened with arrest, dogged by corruption charges, Bhutto has sat out the last eight years in self-imposed exile in London and Dubai, while still leading what is arguably the country's largest party with nationwide support, the Pakistan People's Party.

In that time, she has seen Musharraf, her former chief of military operations, seize power in a coup. She has watched the political turmoil build here as Pakistanis grow restless under military rule, galvanized most recently by Musharraf's ouster of the Supreme Court's chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

Members of her party were heavily represented in the outpouring of support for Chaudhry at a rally Saturday, a peaceful rally just weeks after more than 40 people were killed in Karachi in clashes related to his ouster.

As Pakistan veers toward elections this year, and as Musharraf runs into mounting opposition over his plans to seek a second term, Bhutto, 53, is raising her profile once again and positioning herself as savior of the nation, someone who can lead Pakistan back to democracy and provide a final bulwark against Islamic extremism.

Despite his repeated insistence that Bhutto will not be allowed to contest the elections, Musharraf, aides and diplomats say, has been conducting discreet negotiations for some kind of deal that would allow Bhutto back and him to stay on as president.

The corruption charges, which Bhutto says are politically motivated, might then be dropped.

"General Musharraf says that he wouldn't allow me back and I interpret that to mean that he would then arrest me and prevent me from having freedom of movement and freedom of speech and freedom of association," Bhutto said in the interview, which took place recently at one of her homes outside Pakistan. "In any event I'd like to go back, and I'm looking at the window between September and December to do that."

To some the prospect of Bhutto's return confronts Pakistan with an unsavory choice, one it has faced before. Since its independence in 1947, this nuclear-armed nation of 149 million has alternated between rule by generals who have fronted for a domineering military and civilian politicians who have won an enduring reputation for corruption.

They have in turn worn out their welcomes. The country has had no fewer than four constitutions, has had four military takeovers of government and has never experienced a constitutional transfer of power.

By the time Musharraf seized power in October 1999, overthrowing Bhutto's successor, Nawaz Sharif, who also lives abroad to avoid corruption charges, he was embraced by much of the population, wearied by turbulent years of short-lived, self-serving civilian governments.

Yet today, Bhutto, part of a storied family dynasty, is probably the most popular politician with national appeal. If allowed to return, she may well be in a position to form the next government.

Daughter of a politician executed by the military, Oxford educated and the first woman prime minister in the Islamic world, at the age of 35, Bhutto captivated supporters in the West as well as many Pakistanis in her early days.

She was twice prime minister - from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996, when her personal and political fortunes unraveled.

She left Pakistan eight years ago under a cloud. She was embroiled in a family feud when her brother, Murtaza, tried to claim leadership of the party their father founded, the Pakistan's People's Party.

Her brother was gunned down in 1996. Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was jailed on suspicion of the murder, although the case was never proved. Bhutto says the murder was a plot by Pakistani intelligence to divide and weaken her family.

That same year, Bhutto's three-year-old government was dismissed amid accusations of mismanagement and corruption. Three months later she suffered a resounding defeat in elections.

While she says the balloting was rigged, the polls also reflected the disillusion and anger of Pakistanis over a deteriorating economy, rising violence and a leadership that many here felt was concerned only with itself.

Though she has lived in self-imposed exile since 1999 to avoid prosecution for corruption, she denies any wrongdoing. Although her party fared badly in the previous two elections, after she and her husband left the country, it remains politically strong.

No date has been set for the next elections, but the polling must take place by the end of the year.

"Ultimately for the elections to be credible, it is important that the participation should not be denied to a leader of a party, and a party which is the most popular party in the country," she said.

For the general's part, after a series of political missteps in recent months, including the suspension of Chaudhry, he finds himself in ever-greater need of allies if he is to win re-election by the Parliament.

Some of his supporters see Bhutto as the preferred moderate partner.

The violence in Karachi that left more than 40 people dead on May 12 occurred after parties backing Musharraf clashed with members of the Pakistan People's Party and other opponents as Chaudhry flew in to make a speech. After that, Bhutto declared that all negotiations with Musharraf were off. But in the interview she made clear that she still wanted to find a smooth transition to democracy, rather than a violent overthrow of the government.

"The fact that he was ready to engage with the PPP was positive," Bhutto said. "I think he toyed with the idea of moderate forces getting together."

Bhutto presents herself now as a leader who not only can help Pakistan thread a potentially treacherous course back to civilian rule, but also as someone who can stem a tide of extremism, a claim her opponents say she is exaggerating to gain favor in the West.

There are two battle lines being drawn in Pakistan, she said, military dictatorship versus democracy, and moderate Islam versus extremism and military hard-liners. While Musharraf is her most obvious foe, she says the elections may also be Pakistan's last chance to choose a moderate path.

"My fear is if we don't act in these elections, by the next elections it might be too late," Bhutto said.

"Anyone who has lived in Pakistan knows very well that there is a group of people who believe in a war against the West," she added, referring to religious hard-liners in the government's intelligence agencies as well as in jihadi groups. "And it is not just that, it is the hatred that they preach."

A negotiated transition to democracy remains her preferred option, she said, because violent confrontation could quickly be usurped by extremists.

"If the streets hold sway, then it is anyone's guess who actually captures the movement," she said. "After all, when there was a revolution in Iran, nobody expected the religious parties to triumph."

Bhutto warned, however, that while Musharraf may speak in favor of moderate Islam, the advisers and the military and intelligence hard-liners around him, who hold the strings of power, were working against it. "The country is actually run by military hard-liners," she said.

"It remains my concern that these hard-liners want to destabilize democracy in Pakistan because their agenda is to bring about a soft Islamic revolution," she added. "They are building secretly on their militant cells across the country."

She pointed out that despite the general's declared policy of leading Pakistan toward "enlightened moderation," Al Qaeda and the Taliban have used northern Pakistan to regroup and the Taliban influence is seeping into other parts of the country.

She said she was appalled that Pakistan's government had made deals that allow foreign militants sway in parts of the country. She pointed out that the building of madrassas, religious schools that have been used to recruit militants, had increased.

Critics have long charged that the situation was not wholly different even under her rule, when Pakistan backed the Taliban and used Islamic extremist groups as levers against its neighbor, India, in their dispute over the border territory of Kashmir.

But Bhutto defended her government's performance in fighting terrorism, saying that even though she supported the Taliban in their early days, during her time in office there were no Qaeda terrorist training camps in Pakistan, and no terrorist acts anywhere in the world connected to Pakistan.

She said she had collaborated closely with the F.B.I. in the arrest of Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and had cracked down on extremist groups. At least six terrorist plots, including the London transit bombings, have been traced to Pakistan since General Musharraf took power.

'Look at what there was in 2002, and see how much worse the situation has got by 2007," she said. Yet, Washington continues to support General Musharraf, she said, giving him billions of dollars in assistance since 2001.

Despite her alarm, Bhutto said she believed that the religious hard-liners in both the intelligence circle and jihadi groups were running out of options. And open and fair elections would show just how little support the religious parties and extremists actually have in the country, she said.

"Elections are important because at the end of the day when we empower the people, the minority extremists will get totally marginalized and sidelined; their strength is being disproportionately blown up," she said.

"It is a battle for the heart and soul of Pakistan," she said. "It is also a battle for the rest of the Muslim world and the world at large. It is not just Pakistan; what we are doing in Pakistan has much larger implications not only on Afghanistan and India, but in my view for the larger world."

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