'A Double-Edged Sword'
Pakistan's banished prime minister on talks with Musharraf that could pave her way back to power.
By Ron Moreau; Newsweek International
Aug. 13, 2007 issue - Benazir Bhutto, the exiled, two-time Pakistani prime minister, is now negotiating a political comeback with President Pervez Musharraf. Last week they reportedly met face to face in Abu Dhabi after months of back-channel talks. The two need each other. Bhutto wants to return to Pakistan to run in next year's elections—without having to face the corruption charges that drove her into exile. She also needs a repeal of the two-term limit for elected prime ministers. Musharraf, meanwhile, is grasping at straws: last month the Supreme Court overturned his suspension of the chief justice; his approval rating is an anemic 34 percent, and Islamic militants have launched a spate of attacks against his security forces, including two suicide bombings in Islamabad. He thus needs the support of Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party—arguably the most popular political force in the country—if he hopes to be re-elected president. From her London home, Bhutto, 54, discussed Pakistan's political melodrama in a telephone interview with NEWSWEEK's Ron Moreau. Excerpts:
MOREAU: Did you meet with President Musharraf last week in Abu Dhabi?
BHUTTO: I know there's been widespread speculation, but both the presidency and the PPP have not officially said any meeting took place. Both sides have confirmed that there are negotiations going on.
Why such secrecy in the talks?
There's confidentiality about the level of the contacts and how they are taking place, but there's total transparency on the fact that talks are ongoing. We've been searching for a way to facilitate the transfer to democracy. We feel that fair elections are very important for Pakistan and that any attempt to rig the elections would create chaos in the country.
Did you strike any agreement with Musharraf?
We have covered some points, but there are others still to cover. These include steps that can be taken to ensure that the coming elections are fair and open to all political parties and leaders; lifting the ban on a twice-elected prime minister seeking office a third time; a balance of power between the president and the prime minister, and a level playing field for all political parties.
Will you insist that the president resign from the military before he is re-elected?
Both sides have agreed to differ on this issue. We believe that this is unconstitutional and will be challenged in Pakistan's apex court, leading to a fresh controversy and further uncertainty. Such a move would mean more instability.
Aren't some of your supporters disappointed that you're talking with Musharraf at a time when a united opposition could perhaps topple him?
I got a very sweet message from one of our followers who said he was very pleased that the PPP was talking to the regime to help a stable and smooth transition to democracy. I know there are people who feel we could get rid of [Musharraf] by coming onto the streets. But it's a double-edged sword. Coming out on the streets could give him a pretext for [declaring] an emergency or military rule.
Why aren't you cooperating with the Islamic political parties?
The PPP is uncomfortable associating with the alliance of religious parties known as the MMA. Their policies on extremism are ambiguous. The PPP wants the people of Pakistan to have a clear choice between the forces of the future and the forces of the past, between those who condemn extremism and those that don't.
How would you propose to combat rising Islamic extremism?
A PPP government would commit itself to restoring the rule of law in all of Pakistan; to the active engagement and pursuit of Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists; to the interdiction of the drug trade that funds terrorism; to the closing of those militant headquarters posing as political madrassas that house militants and teach hatred.
So when will you return to Pakistan?
Right now I can only say I'll be back before the end of the year.
During your two terms as prime minister, you were criticized for mismanaging the country. Would you be different this time?
The earlier experience taught me a lot. There's been plenty of time for reflection [since]. We have difficult relations with India and tensions with Afghanistan. I hope to work with other leaders in the region to bring about peace. And within Pakistan I hope we will be able to give transparent government and protect the free press.