Bhutto Plans October Return to Pakistan

Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan, indicates she will try to return to the country in October. She left in 1999 amid allegations of corruption. Now she is in power-sharing negotiations with President Pervez Musharraf.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've been hearing a lot lately from Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. And today she's expected to announce the date for her return home. Bhutto left Pakistan in 1999 amid allegations of corruption. Earlier this week, another former prime minister, Nawaz Shariff, returned to Pakistan. Within hours, he was deported to Saudi Arabia.

To pave the way for her return, Bhutto has been trying to nail down a power-sharing agreement with Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf.

NPR's Philip Reeves is in Islamabad and on the line. What is Bhutto expected to say today?

PHILIP REEVES: Well, no one here doubts she's coming back to Pakistan, whether or not she's got a deal with Musharraf. And today, she will announce the date of her return before the parliamentary elections, which are to be held before mid-January. Many here are expecting her to say she's coming back soon after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began here today. So that would be towards the end of October.

MONTAGNE: Now, the whole idea of her making a deal with President Musharraf for power sharing sounds a bit anti-democratic.

REEVES: Yes, indeed. And many of her opponents are making exactly that point. Others are saying that time's running out. You know, one of the issues that's been under negotiation is Musharraf's plan to get reelected as president by the current national and provincial parliaments and those elections are due by the 15th of October. So they need to get an agreement, democratic or undemocratic, soon - especially if they're both losing political support because they've been negotiating with one another.

Right now, a deal is not looking likely. If she returns without one, the government says that's unlike Nawaz Sharif, she will be allowed in but that would - it could set the stage, of course, for a confrontation with Musharraf and the government says there is a possibility of her facing corruption charges.

MONTAGNE: And what would happen if either of those things transpire, a confrontation or charges being brought?

REEVES: Well, if charges are brought, then, of course, there's a possibility that she will spend a period in jail. That would, of course, mean that there's a risk of her being, as it were, martyred and becoming more popular. And if she comes back, she will, of course - and fails to get an agreement with Musharraf, she will, of course, then be in a position to challenge Musharraf and that will raise the prospect of Musharraf taking some, what you might describe as extraordinary measures.

MONTAGNE: So back to that deal, criticism of that being sort of a back room thing, aside, what are the sticking points between these two powerful people?

REEVES: Well, Benazir has been Pakistan's prime minister twice. She wants Musharraf to reverse a law, which he introduced, banning prime ministers from serving three times - and that law was partly created expressly to keep her out of office. She wants corruption charges against her dropped. She wants the law changed so that President Musharraf won't have the power to sack prime ministers, i.e. her. And crucially, she wants him to stand down as army chief.

Now, Musharraf has got some problems with this. For example, the army is, by far, Pakistan's most powerful institution. He's worried that if he gives up the chief of staff's job and becomes a civilian president, he will lose his power. Also, some members of this party, on whom he relies to support the parliament, are very unhappy about the idea of allowing Bhutto to be prime minister a third time.

MONTAGNE: So is a deal likely, yes? No?

REEVES: I don't think it really is. And then, of course, there's going to be the prospect of a challenge in the Supreme Court and beyond that lies the possibility of emergency or even martial law.

MONTAGNE: Philip, thanks very much. NPR's Philip Reeves speaking to us from Islamabad.

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