Pakistan: Musharraf-Bhutto deal is snarled over key issues

London, 30 August (AKI/DAWN) - Negotiations between Pakistan's president General Pervez Musharraf and ex-premier Benazir Bhutto are understood to have met a seemingly unsurmountable hurdle.

It is believed that Musharraf is insisting that he should decide when Bhutto will return to Pakistan and that the clause in the constitution that restricts prime ministers from running for a third time, not be withdrawn.

Sources privy to the ongoing negotiations said that about 95 percent of the deal had been done, but the remaining unresolved five percent, they thought, could put the talks in the reverse gear.

Bhutto has demanded that all legal and administrative hurdles in the way of her return should be withdrawn and the constitutional bar against her becoming prime minister for the third time be lifted.

She also wants people like Justice (retd) Malik Qayuum, the new Attorney-General whom she has referred to as a discredited person, be removed from government offices before the elections are held.

Some observers in London say that by asking for indemnity for governments who ruled between 1988 and 1999, she was in fact trying to keep her rival for the PM’s slot, Nawaz Sharif, out of the arena as he and his senior party colleague Javed Hashmi were held guilty albeit of concocted crimes after 1999.

They said Musharraf on the other hand wanted to share power with Benazir not directly but through a proxy with Bhutto's Pakistan's People's Party (PPP) if her party won enough seats after the general elections.

Also perhaps to ensure that he was saved from even such a possibility, Musharraf wanted to keep Bhutto from personally leading the party’s election campaign believing perhaps that her absence from the country would considerably reduce her party’s election fortunes.

“That is why perhaps he wants to set the date of her return so that he could keep her out of arena,” sources said.

But in an interview with the English newspaper, Daily Telegraph, Bhutto said that the issue of Musharraf holding both posts as president and head of the armed forces was the key and “there has been a lot of movement on it in the recent round of talks”.

She claimed that Musharraf had already agreed to resign as army chief in a power-sharing deal.

The newspaper claims the shift comes days after the Supreme Court ruled that another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whom Gen Musharraf ousted in a coup in 1999, was allowed to return from exile.

Bhutto also claimed that in this week’s talks, the embattled president placed a ‘new issue’ on the negotiating table by seeking her support over his ‘eligibility’ to be re-elected.

Musharraf, faced by an increasingly bold Supreme Court, has asked Bhutto to support a constitutional amendment allowing him to be re-elected.

Bhutto said the government would have to make “an upfront gesture of reciprocity, a clear indication of political support for the Pakistan People's Party”.

Bhutto, who served twice as prime minister but whose tenures both ended amid allegations of corruption, said her party wanted to see signs that Musharraf's ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League, is “no longer calling the shots”.

“We are close to an agreement, but we are still not there,” she said, adding that the deadline for any deal was the end of this month.

Nawaz Sharif has pledged to return to Pakistan soon, presenting an immediate challenge to both Musharraf and Bhutto whose dealings with a military dictator have tarnished her party.

Sharif said on Tuesday that Gen Musharraf's offer to step down as army chief was “too little, too late”.

“Musharraf does not qualify to be a presidential candidate, whether in or out of uniform,” he said in London. “He has lost credibility and the people of Pakistan want him out.”

Behind the scenes America and Britain are trying to forge an alliance between the military ruler and Bhutto.

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Bhutto said that an agreement with Musharraf was a done deal ‘almost’.

“We believe now we do not have to move the court, he will take off the uniform himself before seeking election,” said Bhutto. “I think it is no longer an issue,” she asserted.

In the same programme, Pakistan's railways minister Shaikh Rashid told the network that in fact an agreement on the uniform was a ‘done deal’.

“I don’t see that as a stumbling block,” Bhutto told CNN. “General Musharraf understands that the people of Pakistan want him to take the uniform off. And he wants to make the people happy.”

“It’s solved,” said Rashid.

Asked when does she plan a return,Bhutto said: “This fall I will return whether or not we have a deal.”

In an interview with Dawn earlier in the month Bhutto also indicated that her husband Asif Zardari, who is undergoing rehabilitation in a New York hospital, would accompany her. “Only if he is well,” she said.


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