ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, a talk with Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan. Madam Bhutto was twice Pakistani prime minister. Madame Bhutto was twice Pakistani Prime Minister. Both she and he rival from the 1990s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lived outside Pakistan and this the era of President Pervez Musharraf who seized power in the 1999 coup. Sharif is in forced exile, Bhutto is in self-imposed exile but she faces prosecution on corruption charges should she return. Even so, the former Pakistani leader has vowed to go back to Pakistan to lead her party in elections later this year. Madam Bhutto spoke to us from outside Pakistan earlier today, and I asked her whether she's decided when she will return to the country.

Ms. BENAZIR BHUTTO (Former Pakistani Prime Minister): I planned to go back sometime between September and December of this year, depending on the election schedule and on political developments within Pakistan. This is an opportunity for the people of Pakistan to try and restore democracy. And it's also an opportunity for us through the restoration of democracy to undermine the forces of religious extremism 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.

SIEGEL: 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?

Ms. BHUTTO: Right now, there is no such understanding on the cards, and it's very possible that the regime might try to arrest me. I've 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.

SIEGEL: 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?

Ms. BHUTTO: 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 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, General 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.

SIEGEL: 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.

Ms. BHUTTO: 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.

SIEGEL: 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?

Ms. BHUTTO: 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.

SIEGEL: I want you to comment on something that former Senator 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 Senator Edwards said this.

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Senator JOHN EDWARDS (Democrat, North Carolina): 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.

Ms. BHUTTO: I know that this is an argument that has been made by General Musharraf to frighten the international community into prolonging his dictatorship. I see things differently. I believe that the longer General 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.

SIEGEL: 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?

Ms. BHUTTO: 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.

SIEGEL: Benazir Bhutto, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Ms. BHUTTO: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan. You can learn more about the political situation in that country, and the crisis facing the current president, Pervez Musharraf, at our Web site, npr.org.

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