Bhutto Sees Return to Pakistan Aiding Democracy

Benazir Bhutto i i

hide captionFormer Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto looks on as she meets in London with former premier Nawaz Sharif in October 2006.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Benazir Bhutto

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto looks on as she meets in London with former premier Nawaz Sharif in October 2006.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Pakistan's Political Crisis

Pakistanis don't agree about much, but on one issue there's consensus: Their president and military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is facing his most serious political crisis since he seized power in a coup in 1999.

 

It is a crisis with potentially enormous ramifications for Pakistan, for its neighbors, and for the international community.

Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, has decided to return to Pakistan to contest elections there, despite her risk of getting arrested.

Bhutto left the country years ago to avoid graft charges. Now, she says, she wants to pressure President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for a return to civilian rule.

But Bhutto is not seen by many in Pakistan as a shining champion of democracy. Her two terms in office destroyed the optimism and excitement that were present when she began her first tenure as prime minister in 1988.

Bhutto tells Robert Siegel that she plans to return to Pakistan sometime between September and December, depending on political developments there.

"This is an opportunity for the people of Pakistan to try and restore democracy," Bhutto says. "And it's also an opportunity for us through the restoration of democracy to undermine the forces of religious extre'ism who have expanded their influence in Pakistan during the last five years. I believe it's important for Pakistan's democratization as well as moderation for me to go back and play a role."

Do you anticipate that if you went back, would there be an understanding that you would not be arrested or prosecuted by the government if you returned?

Right now, there is no such understanding on the cards, and it's very possible that the regime might try to arrest me. I have consulted my lawyers, and they too are ready to support me. But ultimately it's a political decision. We do have a chief of army staff as president of Pakistan, so the military is in a very strong position. And our judicial institutions are a little weak. But nonetheless, I am prepared to take the risk because I think it's important for Pakistan and for its future.

Now, there are many reports that you or your allies have been negotiating with President Musharraf or his allies, possibly to share power in some transition back to parliamentary or civilian rule. Was such an arrangement on the table and is it still conceivable to you.

I'd say that that's partially true. The talks that we were having were centered less on sharing power, and centered more — at least the way I would like to see it — centered more on a transition to democracy. We understand that in a transition to democracy, countries face many challenges, and we in the PPP [Pakistan People's Party] wanted to facilitate such a transition. And that's the reason why our party has had contacts with the military regime.

Unfortunately, those contacts have not yet materialized into any understanding that could lead to truly fair elections in Pakistan, to my return, to be able to play a proper role in those elections. Just last month, Gen. Musharraf said that he would not permit the two exiled former prime ministers to participate in the elections. And I feel that if I can't return to my country, if I can't participate in the elections, those elections will not be fair, and secondly, it would give an unfair advantage to the religious parties whose leadership is present in Pakistan.

You said these talks have not yet produced such an agreement. That's at least an implicit statement of some optimism that the talks aren't finished yet.

Well, Mr. Siegel, right now I don't want to talk about the talks, because it makes people very angry. Certainly, after the events of May 12th when 48 people were killed in the city of Karachi at the hands — many suspect — of a coalition partner of the regime, and until today, not a single person has been arrested for those 48 murders. Our supporters say we shouldn't be talking to a regime that has killed 48 people and not arrested a single murderer. That's what they say. And they say we shouldn't be talking to a regime that is not – that is refusing to reinstate the chief justice of Pakistan because it wants to weaken the judiciary with a view to rig the forthcoming elections.

What do you say to Pakistanis who would say, well, the return of Benazir Bhutto or, for that matter, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, would be a return to contested elections in parliamentary democracy, But those were also days of mutually destructive politics, very intense rivalry, and corruption?

I would say that Mr. Nawaz Sharif and I have signed a charter of democracy where we have pledged to work together to bring about some fundamental reforms to our political system to make it responsive to the needs of the people. And I do believe that there needs to be a balance in the powers between the president and the prime minister. One of the reasons that there was so much political turmoil in the past was because the president had the power to dismiss a parliament and a prime minister. And the president often exercised that power, and all the parties played to the president because they wanted to ally with him. So I think doing away with the dissolution power is an important factor.

And secondly, I would say that the charges of corruption were made to actually distract from the institutionalized corruption of the military regime. I know that my party and I have both fought those charges with grim determination for a decade and none of them have been proven. And I believe it's for the courts to declare someone guilty or innocent, and so far, the courts have declared on our side.

I want you to comment on something that former Sen. John Edwards said last night in the Democratic candidate debate in New Hampshire. The question was about Pakistan, democracy, and fighting against al-Qaida. And Sen. Edwards said this:

And one danger that anyone has to recognize with the possible taking down of Musharraf as the president of Pakistan — and I met with him also in Islamabad a few years ago — one of the things we have to recognize is if he goes out of power given the power of radical Islam in Pakistan, there is absolutely no way to know what kind of government will take his place.

I know that this is an argument that has been made by Gen. Musharraf to frighten the international community into prolonging his dictatorship. I see things differently. I believe that the longer Gen. Musharraf continues with the present political structure that he has put into place, the greater will be the threat from the Taliban and the extremists. Back in 2002, the Taliban had been defeated; they were dispersed; they were disorganized. And since then, they have regrouped and reorganized and rearmed themselves to the extent that they regularly carry out attacks on NATO troops, and Afghan troops, in nearby Afghanistan. Secondly, within Pakistan itself, many of our cities have been ceded to the militants one by one.

But how then would a democratic government deal with the rising authority of Islamists in Pakistani cities, merely to contest with them at the polls and run against them, or are you speaking of some sort of crackdown on them?

Contesting the polls is only the beginning of the journey to undermine extremism, militancy and terrorism. But most fundamental is to address the social and economic needs of the people of Pakistan. In a way, dictatorship neglects the basic needs of the people. And when their basic needs to clothing, to housing, to drinking water, to economic advancement is neglected, the poverty and the desperation is a fertile ground for the extremists to exploit.

Musharraf Faces Political Crisis in Pakistan

Pakistani lawyers rally against President Pervez Musharraf

hide captionPakistani lawyers march and chant slogans against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf during a rally May 31, 2007, in Lahore.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf

hide captionPakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is under fire for supporting the suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry

hide captionPakistan Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry is charged with misconduct and abuse of authority by President Pervez Musharraf.

Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Benazir Bhutto's Role

Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, has decided to return to Pakistan to contest elections there, despite her risk of getting arrested.

Bhutto left the country years ago to avoid graft charges. Now, she says, she wants to pressure President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for a return to civilian rule.

Bhutto tells Robert Siegel that she plans to return to Pakistan sometime between September and December, depending on political developments there.

Listen to the interview with NPR's Siegel.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto

hide captionFormer Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto could play a role in quelling protests against rival Musharraf.

Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

Nawaz Sharif on Pakistan

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a coup in 1999. As Musharraf faces increasing pressure to step down after sacking the country's top judge, Sharif says he'd like to return.

Listen to the interview that aired NPR's Morning Edition.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

hide captionFormer Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says he would like to return to Pakistan.

Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistanis don't agree about much, but on one issue there's consensus: Their president and military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is facing his most serious political crisis since he seized power in a coup in 1999.

It is a crisis with potentially enormous ramifications for Pakistan, for its neighbors, and for the international community.

The political crisis began in March, sparked by Musharraf's support of a move from within his administration to dismiss the country's most senior judge, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, over allegations of misconduct, including nepotism.

Instead of meekly resigning, the judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry, embarked on a flamboyant nationwide campaign demanding the establishment, for the first time in Pakistan's turbulent 60-year history, of a genuinely independent judiciary.

To the intense exasperation of the military government, Chaudhry began traveling from city to city accompanied by a large and noisy posse of supporters, mostly black-clad lawyers. They called for Chaudhry's reinstatement and, in some cases, for Musharraf's departure.

The judge then became the rallying point for a variety of Musharraf's opponents. Restless after seven-and-a-half years of military rule — a period during which the army's top brass has grown steadily more influential and wealthier — the country's main opposition parties eagerly leaped onto the chief justice's bandwagon.

These days, the flag-waving crowds who flock around the traveling judge include activists from the secular Pakistan People's Party, from the PML-N (the party of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister ousted by Musharraf's coup) and from Pakistan's religious parties.

Until recently, turnout for the judge's rallies has been relatively small, though always vocal and calculatedly photogenic.

Last weekend, however, he reportedly attracted about 50,000 people for a rally in Abbottabad, a sign that the judge might have acquired a degree of mass support.

There were also large crowds last month when the judge's cavalcade set off from Islamabad for Lahore. Many thousands turned out along the route to fete the judge, turning a journey that usually takes four hours into a 20-hour-plus marathon.

A week later, events turned nasty. Chaudhry went to Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, only to be confronted with a counter-demonstration organized by a pro-government party intent on disrupting his appearance. Violence erupted. Over two days, 48 people died in gun battles between pro-Musharraf and pro-judge activists. Chaudhry never made it beyond the airport.

Supporters of Chaudhry, who is suspended while Pakistan's Supreme Court deliberates his case, believe Musharraf's motives for getting rid of the judge have nothing to do with the misconduct allegations.

They say the judge had been raising awkward questions about "disappearances" — Pakistanis who are presumed to be detained indefinitely by the intelligence service, without access to their families or lawyers.

They also say the president's advisers were worried that petitions would be filed in Pakistan's Supreme Court challenging Musharraf's re-election plan, and that the chief justice would support the petitions.

Musharraf makes no secret of wanting to remain president while retaining the hugely powerful position of army chief of staff.

Equally controversially, he also intends to seek re-election from Pakistan's sitting national and provincial assemblies, now in their final year, instead of waiting for new elections to these bodies. Musharraf's critics say those plans are unconstitutional and undemocratic.

In the United States, nerves are jangling. Washington regards the general as an important ally in the war against rising Islamist extremism — including al-Qaida and the Taliban. It worries about any development that could make a nuclear-armed Pakistan more unstable and even more prone to militancy.

In Pakistan, the crisis has galvanized Musharraf's political opponents into action, and sparked a frenzy of speculation about his future.

Some commentators say Musharraf is on the verge of losing power. Others think he will probably stumble on, having weathered past crises, including backlash from Sept. 11, several assassination attempts, and South Asia's worst earthquake in living memory.

Some suspect he'll attempt a crackdown — he has just introduced restrictions on Pakistan's TV channels.

Others say he may try to secure his survival in office by arranging some kind of power-sharing agreement with exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, leader of arguably the country's most powerful opposition party.

The world is waiting anxiously to see what happens next. The 53-year-old Bhutto could end up playing a key role.

She is still Pakistan's most prominent civilian political figure, although her two terms in office disappointed many Pakistanis and tarnished the dazzling reputation she initially enjoyed when she became the Islamic world's first elected female leader. She says she would like to return to Pakistan before the elections, even though Musharraf has said he will not allow it. She risks being jailed on charges of corruption if she returns.

After the killings in Karachi, Bhutto ruled out the possibility of a deal with Musharraf. Many of the dead were from Bhutto's party. Musharraf's opponents blamed him for the bloodshed.

But speculation has begun to revive. The New York Times reports that Bhutto is "quietly talking through intermediaries about a power-sharing deal with the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf."

When asked about the possible deal by NPR's Robert Siegel, Bhutto said, "Right now I don't want to talk about the talks because it makes people very angry. Certainly after the events of May 12 — when 48 people were killed in the city of Karachi at the hands, many suspect, of a coalition partner of the regime — and until today, not a single person has been arrested for those 48 murders. Our supporters say we shouldn't be talking to a regime that has killed 48 people and not arrested anyone. That is what they say. And they say we shouldn't be talking to a regime that is refusing to reinstate the Chief Justice of Pakistan because it wants to weaken the judiciary with the view to rig the fourth coming elections."

If the two parties were able to work out a deal eventually, there are several conditions Bhutto might stress. Bhutto would want a guarantee of free and fair elections. She would want corruption charges against her dropped, allowing her to return freely to Pakistan. She would want Musharraf to quit as army chief of staff. She and her party might then agree not to stand in the way of his re-election as president.

Yet nothing is certain in Pakistan. The country has spent more years ruled by the military than by civilian governments. It has yet to see power transferred from one government to another according to the rules of the constitution.

And Musharraf, though weaker now, sees himself as a commando — a man who prides himself on fighting his corner until the bitter end.

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