Aug. 7 (Bloomberg) — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is trying to strike a political bargain with embattled President Pervez Musharraf that will both enable him to remain in that post and allow her a new term in power.
The arrangement, as described by Bhutto in an interview yesterday, would allow her to return to Pakistan after eight years in exile and become a prime minister empowered to fight Islamist threats. Her popularity could shield Musharraf from challenges he has faced from democracy proponents since his 1999 coup.
Bhutto, 54, said in New York that she seeks a “balance of power between the president and the prime minister” and a division of authority on security matters. Musharraf and Bhutto met July 27 in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Given the friction between the two pivotal players on the Pakistani political stage, the two are unlikely partners. Musharraf has at times threatened to arrest Bhutto if she returns from exile, while she accuses him of sheltering officials sympathetic toward Islamic extremists.
Opposition to Musharraf, 63, has escalated as he plans to ask lawmakers for a second five-year presidential term before parliamentary elections in January. Musharraf doesn’t want to seek re-election in a new parliament because opposition parties and Islamic groups are drawing increasing support in Pakistan.
A survey of Pakistani public opinion released July 31 by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, an election-monitoring group, found 64 percent of voters opposed another term for Musharraf as president, an increase of 24 percentage points from the February-March poll. When asked who best could lead the nation now, 42 percent said Bhutto, while 30 percent favored Musharraf.
Bhutto said she wants Musharraf to surrender his authority to dismiss the country’s parliament, and abandon a rule that prohibits prime ministers from serving a third term, two steps that would weaken his rule. And she wants a share of control over policing.
“We’re really looking for a transition where the powers are carefully demarcated as to who will be responsible for security or who will be responsible for tackling internal militancy,” Bhutto said as she wore her trademark white headscarf.
Musharraf, who heads the military, is under pressure at home and from the U.S. to give up some of the power he seized in 1999 as a general. His rule has come under threat from secular opponents and from Islamist militants in the predominantly Muslim country, most recently in the battle last month with rebels holed up in the Red Mosque complex in the capital Islamabad.
Bhutto also reiterated that Musharraf would need to shed his military uniform before she would join forces with him.
“We believe that the uniform blurs the distinction between a democracy and a dictatorship and we feel that it’s not good for the image of a professional armed forces to have their chief running the country,” Bhutto said.
Bhutto — who dashed onto the international stage in 1988, becoming that year the first woman to lead a modern Muslim state — has been splitting her time between London and the U.A.E. while facing corruption charges back home.
She says now is the time to return home because “I feel the very unity of Pakistan is under threat from the militants and the terrorists who have risen in power since I left Pakistan.”
Bhutto, who heads the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, said she is willing to risk arrest.
She noted repeatedly that she doesn’t want Pakistan’s legislature, last elected in a vote criticized in 2002 as rigged, to become a “rump” parliament.
Bhutto was critical of Musharraf’s approach to dealing with militants and said much of Pakistan’s intelligence services — and Cabinet — is rife with sympathy for al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which are strengthening in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“It’s across the board like that in every key position, which is why the Taliban have reasserted themselves and regrouped in the tribal areas,” Bhutto said.
In her autobiography, “Daughter of the East,” published in London this year, Bhutto writes that Musharraf’s regime “allowed terrorists to rule” the frontier area with Afghanistan.
“His regime cohabits with extremists who plot against innocent women, children and men on planes, trains and buses all across Europe, America and Pakistan,” she writes.
A Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Tasnim Aslam, disputed claims that Pakistan was sheltering militants. “There is no al-Qaeda or Taliban safe haven in Pakistan,” she said yesterday at a weekly briefing, according to the Associated Press.
While Bhutto said the Pakistani government will act against terrorists only under “international pressure,” she rejected Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama’s prescription for dealing with Musharraf’s reluctance to combat militants.
While Obama said the U.S. should attack unilaterally inside Pakistan if Pakistan won’t act, Bhutto said all strikes should be coordinated.
“I’d be looking to working with NATO and the United States in eliminating the terrorists from our soil but I wouldn’t be in favor of unauthorized attacks,” she said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Janine Zacharia in New York at email@example.com.