Sunday, August 26, 2007

Gen. Pervez Musharraf may sense that his days as president of Pakistan could be numbered. So he has been talking to his former archrival, Benazir Bhutto, about a possible power-sharing arrangement. Bhutto, who was twice prime minister of Pakistan and is currently leader of the popular opposition party PPP, is on the verge of deciding whether to strike a deal with Musharraf or join the opposition against him. She sat down with Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth in New York last week to talk about her options. Excerpts:

Q. Some say that if you make a deal with President Musharraf to return to power, it will diminish your popularity.

A. Many in my party have been urging me to distance myself from General Musharraf. They say his popularity ratings are down. But I am trying to convince them that the international community and the armed forces have confidence in Musharraf, and therefore we need to work out a solution [with him]. Our goal is to strengthen the forces of moderation and that's why we've been involved in this negotiation with General Musharraf.

Now we are at a critical point where I am being tugged in two directions -- between those in the party who believe in dialogue and those who think that time is running out and that we can't spend more time [talking] unless there are upfront confidence-building measures.

What have you asked President Musharraf to do?

We want a balance of power, reforms for a fair election, lifting of the ban on a twice-elected prime minister [running for a third term], as well as immunity for all holders of public office prior to 1999 or 2000. Where there are unproven charges that go back now for more than a decade or two, a chapter should be closed. General Musharraf has told me he wants this.

Did you tell Musharraf that he would have to step down as army chief of staff if you entered into partnership with him?

I told him that we could not have a working arrangement with the army chief of staff. His term finishes either this November or December, so we are concerned that there should not be an extension on that.

What did he say?

He has said that he would respect the constitution. Even if the president is not the army chief of staff, he would still appoint the heads of the military, so he would still control the military as the commander in chief.

What are the other issues that stand between you and him?

One issue is the power of the president to sack the parliament. This power was used in the '90s to destabilize democracy, so we are saying it must go.

The presidents kept dismissing governments?

Yes, we believe this was actually done at the request of the security services. The political parties were discredited and the militants grew in strength. . . . But we feel that having 10 governments in 10 years leads to a collapse in governance. The extremists benefit from the chaos.

Is that what stands between you, Musharraf and a deal?

That's one issue, but what stands between us right now is confidence-building steps which were promised and which we want done by the end of the month.

Such as?

Lifting the ban on a twice-elected prime minister. . . . He said yes to that in July. And also immunity to holders of public office from 1988 to 2000. He said yes to that in January of this year.

So Musharraf hasn't lifted the ban on your serving a third term?

I expected him to do the lifting of the ban on the twice-elected prime minister and the immunity for public officers by the end of August. Because he plans to get elected 15 days later in September. So my party needs to see these steps if we are expected to take a certain course of action during the elections.

In other words, if you are expected to support him?

He doesn't want our support, but he doesn't want us going out on the streets and agitating against him. . . . My party says that we have to oppose the presidential election because it is illegal. I have said that if he takes confidence-building measures, then we don't have to vote for him but we don't have to create a ruckus in the streets.

What are the Americans saying?

Their message is, 'We want the stability of Pakistan, fair elections, and General Musharraf is our ally.'

Can Musharraf get elected without your party?

Yes. He told me, 'I don't want your vote.' I advised him that it was better not to seek election from this assembly but to seek election from the next assembly because he would have greater legitimacy without a uniform, elected by a democratic verdict. But he has a different perspective. He thinks it is legal to be elected by this assembly. So we have left it to the courts to decide.

The courts might rule against him?

I think the courts will rule it is illegal.

Then what?

If he does not want us to resign now and join an opposition movement, he needs to take measures.

What do you say to critics who say you cannot control the army?

I say that I controlled the army better than any of the others. When I was prime minister, the tribal areas were part of Pakistan. Now their control has been ceded to the militants and pro-Taliban forces. I did not allow a situation to develop with India that could lead to a war like the one that took place under [former prime minister] Nawaz Sharif. I could not stop the intelligence from destabilizing my government, because I didn't have the presidential power to appoint the service chiefs.

When I was prime minister, I worked closely with the military to get an agreement on no export of nuclear technology. It was subsequently violated -- we don't know whether it was an individual act or because of one of the governments that came and went. I could not stop them from some actions of which I did not approve and for which they got clandestine presidential approval.

If your deal materializes, Musharraf will control the army?

Yes, and I don't want the security services to disagree with my attack on internal militancy and get him to sack the parliament once again. I'd be setting myself up to repeat the past. Which is why president must give up the power [to dissolve the parliament]. In a perfect situation, the prime minister should have power over the armed services. But in this transition period, if Musharraf is still commander in chief of the armed forces, he will still appoint the army chiefs.

Have you heard from him lately?

Yes. He's getting back to me by the end of the month. He has to decide. The people who are stopping him are Chaudhry Shujaat [president of the Pakistan Muslim League Q, Pakistan's ruling party]. He is telling Musharraf to go with the enemy -- the religious parties [known as the MMA] -- and we can get you reelected and we don't need the PPP.

I think Chaudhry Shujaat is setting Musharraf up for failure. He's saying, 'Seek election and I will be your cover candidate.' A lot of the people involved in the Afghan jihad are with him. If Musharraf is knocked out by the courts, guess who will be the president? Chaudhry Shujaat. It's under his party that the extremists have spread in power. Musharraf thinks he needs these people but they are planning to depose him. He trusts them because he's been working with them. To us, it's a fight between moderation and extremism.

Do you think Musharraf is a moderate?

He says he is a moderate, but if so, he has to strengthen the moderate forces.

Can you make an alliance with Nawaz Sharif [head of the Pakistan Muslim League N, or Nawaz group]?

If our negotiations with Musharraf fall apart, we can always turn to the other political party. [But] Nawaz Sharif and I had a falling out over the MMA. I think they are the supporters of extremist groups. Nawaz wanted an alliance with them and I did not. As long as he is with them and they are in government, we will go as a third force.

The military tries to say that the alternative [to Musharraf] is the religious parties, which is not the right argument. The third force is the democratic force. Since 2002, the military and the religious parties and Shujaat have been in power. This alliance has ceded territory to the pro-Taliban forces in the tribal areas and ceded ground in our cities to the militants. . . . And they neglected the people: Unemployment has risen. Musharraf has to decide whether to go with the moderate forces and to accept the people's democratic choice.

Unless the United States pressures him, will he go that way?

He says he has an interest, but Chaudhry and those who supported the rise of militancy don't have an interest and are trying to sabotage the understanding.

So will you return to Pakistan?

I'm planning to go back between September and December. I need to be there to strengthen my party and the moderate forces.

Are you worried you will be arrested?

As things stand, it will be difficult to arrest me. There is a risk, but I am prepared to take it.

Didn't Musharraf make a big mistake when he fired the chief justice?

Yes, it was a very big mistake.

Who was behind it?

I think he received wrong information that the action was legal and would be upheld by the courts. People who wanted to weaken him did that.

The fact that Musharraf has extended his term as army chief so many times has not gone down well with the armed forces. There's public discontent over the involvement of the army in the running of the state.

How did you keep going all these years in exile?

The people of my country supported me and the Pakistani community encouraged me. So did my husband and my children. My husband was in prison for eight years and he never once told me he could not take it anymore. My children never told me not to travel.

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