Bhutto Plans Return, With or Without Deal

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 2, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 1 -- Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said Saturday that negotiations on a power-sharing agreement with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, were at a standstill but that she would return from exile regardless of whether the two strike a deal.

Bhutto, who just three days ago had indicated that the agreement was nearly complete, sounded pessimistic about the future of the talks as she spoke to reporters in London. While refraining from much direct criticism of Musharraf, she spoke out harshly against the president's political backers, blaming them for allowing extremism to fester in Pakistan and saying they have deliberately scuttled the deal in order to keep moderates like herself out of power.

The talks "failed because some elements within the ruling party, who have presided over the expansion of extremism and militancy, did not want the path of moderation to take Pakistan to a democratic future," she said.

Bhutto's own Pakistan People's Party, however, had also been resistant to the deal. Many of her strongest supporters have expressed grave reservations about the idea of negotiating with a military man. They have urged her to abandon the talks and return to Pakistan to oppose Musharraf's reelection.

The apparent collapse of the negotiations added even more uncertainty to what is expected to be an incredibly volatile period for Pakistan in the coming months. Musharraf, who must stand for reelection between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15, was once considered a lock for another five-year term. But his fortunes have soured since March, following a botched attempt to fire the chief justice. With his popularity sinking, Musharraf had turned to Bhutto for a possible power-sharing deal that would have allowed her the chance to win back her old job in exchange for her help in giving him a smooth ride to another term.

But Musharraf's supporters said the government had decided that Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party did not offer enough to justify the price.

"Just the PPP on its own will not be able to deliver much, despite what she has been saying," said State Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan.

Still, without Bhutto's backing, Musharraf could face a difficult reelection. Even before the parliament and provincial assemblies vote, the Supreme Court could rule that Musharraf's candidacy is unconstitutional because of his dual role as army chief and president.

Another possible complication is that opposition parties have vowed to protest Musharraf's reelection in the streets, and now Bhutto's loyalists could join them.

Bhutto said her party will announce on Sept. 14 when she will be coming back to Pakistan. That is four days after former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has said he will return from exile.

Sharif has already been given permission by the Supreme Court to come back. But Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum told a Pakistani television station Saturday that Sharif would be arrested as soon as he arrived. Sharif was sentenced to life in prison in 2000 on a variety of charges, including corruption, but cut a deal to live in exile instead. Qayyum said the life sentence goes back into effect as soon as Sharif lands in Pakistan.

Without an agreement with the government, Bhutto could also be in legal jeopardy once she arrives because of several outstanding corruption cases against her. That may be one reason that Saturday she did not rule out the possibility that the talks with the government could be revived.

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