Can there be a stranger pair of bedfellows than Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto? The beleaguered president and exiled PM met recently in Abu Dhabi to put in place a political coalition. The upshot: They would share power after elections this year. Bhutto would stand for prime minister again, and Musharraf would retain the presidency. Bhutto has demanded that Musharraf give up control of the military as part of a deal.
This would be a marriage of convenience. The sad thing for Pakistan is that it also might be the best short-term bet to box out a small but determined faction of religious extremists who seem intent on realizing their vision of Pakistan as an Islamic theocracy.
Since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Musharraf has been a key ally to the U.S. in its fight against Al Qaeda. But he has not been an entirely reliable ally, and in recent weeks he has been weakened in his own country.
His brash decision to suspend the chief justice of the Supreme Court drew understandable outrage. (The justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, was reinstated.) A standoff last month between police and hard-line radical religious activists at Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, led to at least 100 deaths and fomented more public anger. Since the raid, the country has seen a surge in suicide and roadside bombings. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda’s influence in tribal areas has grown, a threat to the U.S. and other nations.
Musharraf’s public approval, at 54 percent in February, fell to 34 percent in June, according to a poll released Wednesday by the International Republican Institute in Washington. Bhutto was named by 54 percent of Pakistanis as the best leader to take the country forward.
Yet a power-sharing alliance between Musharraf and Bhutto could be problematic for several reasons.
Pakistan has been besieged for years by official corruption, and Bhutto’s most recent government was dismissed in 1996 in the wake of corruption charges. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, allegedly collected money from private companies seeking favorable business deals with Pakistan.
Bhutto has faced charges of stashing ill-gotten gains in other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. She is fighting a money-laundering conviction in Switzerland. Pakistan has doggedly tried to recover what’s believed to be hundreds of millions of dollars.
Musharraf, who has vowed to fight official corruption in his country, would be embracing a woman he once said would be locked up if she returned.
Musharraf and Bhutto have other reasons to be wary of each other. Musharraf, who still occasionally hears the cry of “muhajir” — a derisive term applied to Indian-born Pakistanis who fled to the nascent nation after partition — doesn’t fully trust the high-born Bhutto. And Bhutto, whose father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was deposed by an army chief and later executed, retains a distrust of the military, which protects Musharraf’s power.
So why would this make sense for anyone? The chance for stability, a route to easing Musharraf from dual control of the presidency and the military and an answer to religious extremism.
Pakistan is, for the most part, a moderate Muslim country. It’s expected that Islamist parties would, at most, win only 5 to 10 percent of the votes in upcoming elections. But their influence is growing.
A deal between Musharraf and Bhutto, who leads the largest opposition contingent in the country, would be unsavory. It’s a sign of the fragile nature of Pakistan that the best hope for the near future may be an alliance between a president who came to power in a coup and a former prime minister who left the country under a corruption cloud. But that’s how it is in this odd and dangerous corner of the world.Top