Thursday, October 11, 2007

Musharraf warns Bhutto to wait

President Pervez Musharraf told Pakistani TV yesterday that former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto should not return home until after a court ruling on the legality of his overwhelming re-election victory last week. Pakistan’s Supreme Court will consider opposition challenges to Musharraf's eligibility in last Saturday’s election. The two are currently plotting an end to Bhutto’s exile and a power sharing arrangement next year. However Musharraf would not elaborate why he thought Bhutto should wait till after the decision.

The court reconvenes on 17 October and Bhutto, 54, is due to return from her eight year exile on the following day. Her Pakistan People's Party has requested a bullet-proof vehicle and extra police protection on her arrival. Their request follows a threat by a Waziri pro-Taliban militant leader, Baitullah Mehsud, to kill Bhutto in a suicide attack. Bhutto told a newspaper interview on the weekend she accepts her homecoming is fraught with danger. "I know there are security risks, people who want to kill me and to scuttle the restoration of democracy,” she said. "But with my faith in God and trust in the people of Pakistan, I'm sure the party workers will be there and will protect me."

Two time premier Bhutto hopes to lead her party to victory in the next parliamentary election. Pakistan is scheduled to hold a parliamentary poll in early January 2008. Musharraf and Bhutto have already begun negotiating a power sharing arrangement post election. The pair have similar views and are both, in the main, pro-American and anti-Taliban. The deal would see the vulnerable Musharraf cling to presidential power while Bhutto would become Prime Minister.

Bhutto has now requested the Sindh High Court to review her claim to a National Assembly seat reserved for women. Her previous application for the seat was disqualified in 2002 after the government launched a corruption case against her. But last week Musharraf took a major step in the pre-election horse-trading by issuing a “reconciliation ordnance”. This was shorthand for an amnesty on corruption and grants across-the-board immunity for politicians who were active between 1985 and 2007. The ordnance quashes the corruption case against Bhutto.

The move has presented a quandary for Swiss authorities who also have charges of money laundering against Benazir Bhutto and her husband, now based in Dubai. The Swiss accuse the couple of gaining multi-million dollar kickbacks in exchange for handing out a contract to a Swiss firm during Bhutto's second term as Prime Minister in the mid 1990s. The Bhuttos were found guilty in a Geneva court in 2003 but have appealed. Dominique Henchoz, the Pakistani government’s lawyer in Switzerland said he was unsure if the legal action would be stopped. "We'll have to wait to examine the exact wording used in the decree," he said. "Because surely to speak of an amnesty implies that there has been an act of corruption.”

But whatever the outcome in Switzerland, bigger problems may lie ahead at home. Another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, is also returning from exile in the next six weeks. Sharif’s son said his father would return to Pakistan sometime between 15 and 30 November – well ahead of the parliamentary elections. Sharif is a two time Prime Minister from the 1990s and long-term opponent of Bhutto. In 1999 Musharraf deposed Sharif in a military coup after Sharif had tried to sack Musharraf as army chief.

Sharif was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. His sentence was later commuted to exile in Saudi Arabia after Saudi King Abdullah gave personal assurances to guarantee his conduct. Saudi authorities have now tried to dissuade him from returning to Pakistan but Sharif says he is going anyway. Sharif has been heartened by a recent Pakistani Supreme Court decision that he had an “inalienable right" to come back and the Government would be in contempt of court if it tried to stop him. Sharif will be the wildcard in the poker game to come between Musharraf and Bhutto.

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