ISLAMABAD (AFP) — Former Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto will return from exile next week to campaign for January elections, despite a call by President Pervez Musharraf to delay her homecoming, her party said Thursday.
Musharraf said this week that two-time premier Bhutto should wait until the Supreme Court rules on the legality of his landslide victory in Saturday’s controversial presidential election.
But a spokesman for her Pakistan People’s Party, Farhatullah Babar, told AFP that “Benazir Bhutto will return on time. There is no change in her schedule.”
Babar also dismissed reports that Bhutto and her aides would discuss Musharraf’s request later Thursday in Dubai, where she has lived for much of the time since leaving Pakistan in 1999 to avoid graft charges.
“The meeting in Dubai is a routine matter,” Babar said.
Bhutto, the first female prime minister of an Islamic nation, is set to land in the southern city of Karachi on October 18, the day after the court starts hearing challenges against the election.
Musharraf told a private television station late Wednesday that Bhutto should postpone her flight back home until after the court judgement.
“I would say she should not come before, she should come later,” Musharraf told ARYONE in an interview.
Musharraf agreed last week to give Bhutto an amnesty on the corruption allegations that drove her into exile, in a prelude to a likely power-sharing deal between the two Western-friendly political leaders.
Washington has been quietly pushing for a Musharraf-Bhutto alliance to tackle Islamic extremists in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where clashes this week left 250 people dead.
However most Pakistanis oppose such an agreement, according to a poll released Thursday by the International Republican Institute, a US think tank.
The poll also showed support for Musharraf is at an all-time low of 21 percent amid months of political chaos and ongoing Islamist violence.
But there was a huge increase in support for ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was booted out of Pakistan within hours of his own attempted return from exile in September, the poll said.
“As the national mood continues to sour, President Musharraf continues to bear the brunt of this voter dissatisfaction,” said the recent survey of 4,000 people by the non-governmental organisation based in Washington.
A court ruling against the election win of the US-allied general, who grabbed power in a coup in 1999, could push Musharraf over the brink after months of political turmoil and lead to him declaring martial law.
Bhutto’s support in parliament would be vital if Musharraf plans any constitutional changes in the event of a court verdict against him.
Analysts however say that the court is likely to approve the vote.
Current Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz announced late Wednesday that hotly anticipated general elections will be held in early January, in a key step in the nuclear-armed country’s move to democracy.
“With the presidential election held successfully, the first phase of the election process has been completed and now general elections will be held in a transparent and free manner,” he said.
Bhutto, who served as premier from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996, has vowed to lead her party to victory in the polls, the first in Pakistan since 2002.
The general had promised to step down as army chief and become a civilian leader after Saturday’s controversial poll conducted by the national parliament and provincial assemblies, which was boycotted by most of the opposition.