Can Musharraf ride the tigress ?

Benazir Bhutto is scheduled to return to Pakistan on Thursday, with a wink and a nod from President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and some say the Americans too.

Bhutto, a former prime minister of the country, will be received by hundreds of thousands of supporters who are gathering in the port city of Karachi to greet her, when she returns, after eight years of self-imposed exile, according to a report in The Times.

The former prime minister return to Pakistan is in sharp contrast to that of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whose return to Pakistan last month was marked by arrests and lathi-charge of his supporters. Sharif was immediately deported to Saudi Arabia after the Pakistan government claimed that Sharif had signed an agreement to stay out of Pakistan for 10 years.

In contrast, the Government has deployed 3,500 soldiers and as many as 8,000 policemen are on duty to protect Benazir’s route from the airport to a rally near the tomb of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah tomorrow, according to The Times. A shipping container strengthened with bullet-proof glass was being prepared to take her through Karachi, it added.

Musharraf’s government has already passed an ordinance granting amnesty to her and other politicians on charges of corruption. That amnesty has been challenged in court. Musharraf’s own election as President earlier this month has not been declared officially, pending the disposal by the Supreme Court of petitions challenging the President standing for elections while in uniform. Musharraf has promised he will quit as army chief if he retains the post of President, and has already nominated his successor.

Into this chaos steps in Bhutto, attempting to claim the mantle of the democratic movement. Musharraf needs her to give his government legitimacy, and also to help him counter a tide of popular disaffection against his government. That will be particularly important when a new Parliament is elected.

Bhutto will in turn demand an amendment to rules prohibiting her from standing for a third term as prime minister. She will also demand more powers to the prime minister, including amendments to the constitution that prevent the President from dissolving Parliament.

On the face of it a superb deal, brokered by the US. The Americans get to keep Musharraf, an ally in the US war against terror, as President, while using Bhutto as a safety valve for democratic forces.

Benazir pledges to fight to restore democracy in Pakistan. In an interview to NDTV, an Indian TV channel, she however declined to commit herself on the return of Sharif to Pakistan, saying it involved a friendly country, Saudi Arabia. With Sharif out of the way, Bhutto evidently aims to fashion democracy in her own way in Pakistan.

Where will Musharraf figure in the new dispensation ? He suits Bhutto well to help remove the obstacles in her way, in return for his political legitimacy.

But Bhutto and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) can hardly afford to be seen to be too close to the President who is unpopular in Pakistan after years of his rule as head of the army and the government.

Bhutto is hence likely to push for an early election, reduction of the President’s power, and a third term for herself as Prime Minister. Her agenda will however be served only if she can keep the army in the barracks.

Related article:
In Pakistan, Bhutto gives in to Musharraf ?

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