Pakistan Power-Sharing Talks Stall

Efforts by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto to share power in Pakistan with embattled President Pervez Musharraf have hit an impasse. Meanwhile, another Musharraf rival, exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, plans to return to the country on Sept. 10.

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The military ruler of Pakistan wants another term as president. But General Pervez Musharraf, a key US ally, is having problems with two former prime ministers.

Talks about power sharing with one of them, Benazir Bhutto, appear to have stalled. And now the other, the prime minister whom Pervez Musharraf kicked out of office years ago, is coming home. NPR's Philip Reeves reports on the efforts of Nawaz Sharif.

Unidentified Man: (Urdu spoken)

PHILIP REEVES: Nawaz Sharif's supporters meet to discuss the welcome they'll lay on for their returning leader. Sharif's been in exile for most of the years since he was ousted from power by Musharraf in 1999. Musharraf wants it to stay that way.

But last month, the supreme court ruled that Sharif can return to Pakistan. Sharif's supporters are still celebrating.

Unidentified Man: (Urdu spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Urdu spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Urdu spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Urdu spoken)

REEVES: Sharif says he'll come home next Monday. Tariq Chaudhry is a senior official from Sharif's party.

Dr. TARIQ CHAUDHRY (Senior Official, Pakistan Muslim League): The Pakistani people will receive him as a nation. We have calculated that about one million people are receiving Nawaz Sharif at the Islamabad Airport.

REEVES: That may well prove an exaggeration. Yet if Sharif does come home to a rousing reception, it'll be another severe setback for Musharraf. The general is at his weakest point since seizing power. He's severely damaged by his failed attempt to sack the country's chief justice. And now, to rub salt into his wounds, his archenemy is about to return to the landscape.

Musharraf's doing what he can to hang on to power. Pakistan's TV news channels are dominated by one subject: his negotiations with Benazir Bhutto over power sharing. It's tough going.

Ms. BENAZIR BHUTTO (Former Prime Minister, Pakistan): General Musharraf's ministers can...

REEVES: Bhutto has a long wish list. She wants all corruption charges against her dropped. She wants Musharraf to quit as army chief before standing for reelection. She wants an end to term limits, allowing her to become prime minister for a third time. And, one of the main sticking points, she wants the law changed so that the president can no longer dissolve parliament and dismiss the government. Even if they do reach an agreement, how long will it last?

Professor PERVEZ HOODBHOY (Nuclear Physics, Quaid-e-Azam University, Pakistan): I don't believe that General Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto can get along together and be simultaneously chief executives in Pakistan.

REEVES: That's Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy, a writer and commentator of Pakistani affairs.

Prof. HOODBHOY: They have very different personalities. Both of them are strong people. Both of them have been chief executives. And sooner or later, it'll have to break down.

REEVES: As Musharraf and Bhutto wrestle over terms, Sharif's star is rising fast. When Sharif was thrown out of office and left Pakistan, many people -tired of corruption and political infighting - were glad to see him go. Yet Pakistan has failed to produce new leaders. These days, according to the polls, Sharif is the country's most popular politician. Political analyst Nasim Zehra says Sharif has successfully positioned himself as a crusader for democracy.

Ms. NASIM ZEHRA (Political Analyst): Certainly, what he has managed to do and achieve is that in the public discourse, he's emerging as a more of legitimate figure and a more credible figure in the struggle for democracy.

REEVES: But Sharif's popularity worries Pervez Hoodbhoy.

Prof. HOODBHOY: He was a man who had, in fact, proposed the enforcement of Sharia in Pakistan. And I think that, should he come to power, he will make more compromises with the extremists and with the religious parties.

REEVES: Musharraf's officials are indirectly pressuring Sharif not to return. They're also hinting Sharif may be arrested on arrival - he still faces outstanding criminal charges - or deported. Hoodbhoy says that strategy would backfire.

Prof. HOODBHOY: It would be a disaster if Musharraf decided to deport or arrest Nawaz Sharif. His power base is now nonexistent. I think that he would essentially be digging his own grave if he did that.

REEVES: Sharif's supporters say, on arrival, he'll drive in triumphant convoy from Islamabad to Lahore, capital of Punjab, the heartland of his support. Musharraf may well be unable to do anything except sit back and watch.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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