Former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto said this week she was working to forge a partnership with Nawaz Sharif, the man overthrown as prime minister in a 1999 coup by President Pervez Musharraf. Bhutto also formally demanded that Musharraf step down, suggesting that a rumored deal between her and Musharraf has fallen through.
Benazir Bhutto wanted to play the heroine of Pakistan, when she returned to Pakistan last month. At that point there was no mention of collaboration with the opposition, particularly Nawaz Sharif. Blessed by the Americans, and with a power-sharing deal with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf brokered by the Americans, Bhutto hoped to present the democratic face of Pakistan.
Bhutto went along with Musharraf in keeping Nawaz Sharif, another Pakistan prime minister on the margin. On his return, Sharif had been deported to Saudi Arabia to serve an agreement he is said to have made with the Pakistan government to stay out of Pakistan for 10 years. Musharraf saw Sharif as a threat and so did Bhutto, and the Americans went along with it because Sharif was not willing to do a deal with Musharraf.
A deal between Bhutto and Musharraf suited the Americans – they would use the sophisticated, westernized Bhutto as a mascot to convince the world that the US had not forgotten its agenda of promoting democracy, while Musharraf and the army would continue to control the country and fight the war against terror on behalf of the Americans.
That scenario did not pan out as scripted. Bhutto came back to Pakistan to a tumultuous, if well orchestrated, welcome which however ended in tragedy as terrorists struck. But the message was not lost on Musharraf. Bhutto was popular, and she could easily turn that crowd against him. Musharraf’s other trouble was from Pakistan’s Supreme Court which was to rule on the validity of his re-election as President.
So Musharraf surprised the Americans and Bhutto by declaring an emergency in the country, and revamping the country’s Supreme Court. He now says the Supreme Court, purged of the pugnacious former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, will clear his re-election.
Musharraf right now is no mood to concede to Bhutto’s demands, including an amendment to the consitution, that would give her a third term as prime minister. He does not need to. He has the opposition in jail and the Americans where he wants them. He knows that the Americans will not split with him or the army, as they value him far more than Bhutto as long as there are terrorists hiding in the North West Frontier province.
Bhutto can also ill-afford to do a deal with Musharraf who seems to be unwilling to make any concession to the opposition. Elections will be held in January under martial law, which will ensure that they will not be free or fair. “The emergency is to ensure elections go in an undisturbed manner,” Musharraf told the New York Times. He disagrees with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who has been demanding that he lift the emergency, he added.
Forlorn and friendless, Bhutto has now turned to Nawaz Sharif who has welcomed Benazir Bhutto’s call for Pakistan’s president to resign and said the opposition should unite against the military ruler. Bhutto, trying to set the agenda for Sharif, has announced her party may boycott the elections if they are held under martial law.
To be sure this is another alliance of convenience, but it will rattle Musharraf to see his two key opponents making common cause. Will that make him more receptive to American proposals when American Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte travels to Pakistan ? Or will it only strengthen his and the army’s resolve to cling to power at all costs ? Over to American diplomacy.