Facing poll, Bhutto widower keeps options open
By Simon Gardner

KARACHI (Reuters) — Leading Benazir Bhutto’s party into a general election a week away, the slain former Pakistani prime minister’s widower says he is keeping open the option of working with President Pervez Musharraf until after the vote.

“We will cross this bridge when we come to it,” Asif Ali Zardari told Reuters in an interview on Monday at the family home-cum-campaign headquarters in the southern city of Karachi.

Riding a wave of sympathy, Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) appears on course to become the largest party in the National Assembly after the vote on Feb. 18.

The PPP’s intentions will be key to U.S. ally Musharraf’s survival. While it is not a presidential election, a hostile parliament could seek Musharraf’s impeachment.

A survey released by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute on Monday showed 50 percent of respondents intended to vote for the PPP, while the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) that backs Musharraf garnered just 14 percent.

Neither Zardari or his 19-year-old son Bilawal, who were appointed joint-chairmen of the PPP in accordance with Bhutto’s wishes are standing in the election.

The party’s candidate for the premiership is likely to be Bhutto’s long time deputy chairman, Makhdoom Amin Fahim.

Zardari, 51, didn’t rule out the possibility of becoming prime minister in the future, but he had other priorities first.

“We have to get all the parties together, we have to get the people together and there’s a lot of development in democracy to be made, institutions of democracy to be built,” he said, surrounded by portraits and photographs of Bhutto, whose personal office remained shut, just as she left it.

Zardari appeared to suggest that it would be a decade before he would be ready for the premiership.

“The tradition has been that the chairman of a political party has always been the prime minister in Pakistan… We can think about it maybe 10 years from now, but not at the moment.”

Worryingly for Musharraf, Zardari said he is working to build consensus with Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted when he came to power as a general in a coup in 1999.

In a move seen as a warning, the government said last month it would press on with a long-running money-laundering case against Zardari in Geneva.

Zardari was a minister in one of Bhutto’s governments, but critics say he is a divisive figure and nicknamed him “Mr. 10 percent” because of corruption allegations. He spent 11 years in jail on graft and other charges. None of them were proved.

Rigging is the opposition parties greatest fear, and Zardari said the PPP would have to decide whether to accept the poll results or call for agitation if it feels cheated.

“All democratic options are open to us after that and we have a right to do demonstrations, we have the right to call for a strike,” he said.

PPP loyalists blame Musharraf for Bhutto’s assassination by a gun and suicide bomb attack after a rally in Rawalpindi on Dec. 27, saying he provided her with inadequate security.

The IRI survey showed few Pakistanis shared the government suspicion that an al Qaeda linked Taliban commander was behind the attack, and 62 percent believed the government was responsible for her assassination.

Controversy still rages over whether Bhutto was killed a bullet or by a concussive injury caused by the subsequent bomb blast that killed more than 20 other people.

Zardari wants a United Nations inquiry into the killing, but says exhuming the body to settle the point is “unnecessary”.

He said Bilawal and his two younger sisters were aware of the dangers of following their parents’ path into politics. Their grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime minister.

He was ousted in a military coup and hung in the late 1970s.

“They know history, they’ve had a personal loss,” said Zardari.

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