BB-Musharraf Deal Prospects?

The Deal: She has not lost hope
Afzal Khan
The Nation; September 3, 2007

Islamabad Sept. 1: Mohtarama Benazir Bhutto appears to be dejected by the efforts of some "core elements" in the ruling PML-Q for stalling her negotiations with Gen. Musharraf but remains unwavering in her determination to cut a deal with him. She has not shut the door for further talks amid reports that the two may meet any time this week again to repair the damage.

The much-awaited announcement for the return date has been deferred till September 14, a day before the one-month period for presidential election begins. This is apparently meant to allow sufficient time to the General and the powerful foreign backers who are nudging both of them to reached an agreement that envisages a post-election combination with Musharraf as president, preferably without uniform, and Ms. Bhutto as prime minister. The agenda set for Gen. Musharraf would continue to move forward in the new permutation as is evident from PPP chairperson's news conference. It focused mainly on issues of extremism, militancy and resurgent Taliban- three major concerns of the guarantors of the deal.

Musharraf, as is widely believed in the diplomatic circles here, is committed to such an arrangement. Any deviation would probably not be accepted. But his amateurish attempt to conduct the dialogue through his apolitical aides has backfired and created the current impasse. He and his emissaries failed to grasp the political implications of the four critical elements of the new formulation: i) the willingness to take off uniform even prior to his own election;

(ii) Removal of the ban on two-term prime ministers; (iii) Secret negotiations with only one party to the exclusion of others; and (iv) Proclivity to take the coalition MPs for granted, given their five-year slavish conduct. On her part too, it reflected firm belief in the unquestioning ways of party rank and file despite their embarrassingly utter ignorance for what has been going on behind closed doors.

The signal on uniform-the main pillar of the hybrid edifice erected in eight years- generated the devastating perception that the structure is crumbling. The lifting of the prime ministerial ban gave a debilitating and demoralizing message to Chaudhry cousins, Arbab, Leghari, Sherpao. Ejazul Haq, Patriots and other Bhutto haters that she will take the centre stage in the new dispensation after the polls. Their fierce rage should have surprised none as it struck at the roots of their very survival. They have successfully sent the entire dialogue process into a tailspin, queered the pitch and muddied the waters. With it Musharraf's own presidential hopes face a chaotic prospect throwing him at the mercy of the Chaudhrys and others who rallied behind them despite mutual aversion.

Ms. Bhutto had also misread the ground reality when Musharraf approached her for cooperation in amending the Constitution in order to blunt the judiciary's powers to determine eligibility of his candidature. She perceived it as an opportunity for making her own counter –proposals and then provoked Musharraf's ire by making them public and setting a deadline for their acceptance.

A closure to corruption cases has remained on top of the agenda at every meeting and was so in these proposals as well. Musharraf had agreed during the two secret meetings in Abu Dhabi on January 24 and July 27 to phase them. As a quid pro quo Ms. Bhutto expressed willingness to facilitate his election, with or without uniform, by abstaining. The PPP would delink itself from the rest of the opposition in their lethal move to submit en bloc resignations in order to fully expose the farcical nature of the entire exercise divesting it of any credibility or legitimacy. On uniform, Ms. Bhutto and the western backers were prepared to wait till after general elections relying on Musharraf's commitment.

Till then the General was convinced his legal advisers have correctly advised him he can get himself elected in uniform from the present assemblies without any obstacle. But the current mood of the judiciary has shaken this confidence, hence the idea of amending the Constitution with Ms. Bhutto's help to neutralize the judiciary. For the PPP chairperson this was an occasion to claim her pound of flesh. Apart from calling for removal of ban on two-time prime ministers, she demanded another amendment for indemnity to politicians and officials who have served between 1988 and 1999 substituting the earlier promise regarding withdrawal of case dependent on the sweet will of the President. The constitutional amendment would have ended once for all the controversy around these cases.

Ostensibly there is little room for faulting Ms. Bhutto on the question of indemnity. The cases against her are pending for last ten years and the government has been unable to secure any conviction. There is reason to believe that the government deliberate let these let them hanging over her as sword of Damocles to perennially blackmail her. In the PPP the beneficiaries among politicians would be Ms. Bhutto, Asif Zardari, Jehangir Badar, Rehman Malik, Wajid Shamsul Hasan and a few others. But. Intriguingly, the biggest gainer would be Musharraf's staunchest ally, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), that prompted its unhesitating acceptance.

She, however, made another mistake when told by Musharraf's emissaries that the General is prepared to take off the uniform in order to make the PPP MPs to vote for his exemption from other constitutional impediments to be a candidate. She blew it up to the media (this paper had broken the news about Musharraf's willingness to doff the uniform before emissaries landed in London). It was a crude attempt to claim credit for this achievement and vindication of the much-maligned covert contacts with him. It also emboldened her to make another statement that PPP would resign from assemblies if he contested election in uniform. Musharraf was understandably put off by these statements.

It has to be seen how much the two sides would climb down from their new positions. Musharraf is likely to reaffirm his commitment to shed uniform but only after his election. The PPP will abstain and not resign. The proposal for repeal of Article 58 (B) 2 on president's power to dissolve the assembly was more of a suggestion than a condition. It can be considered in the new assemblies. In return for PPP's commitment to vote for constitutional amendments to ensure Musharraf's eligibility as a candidate, the indemnity amendment would also be approved. The uncertainty about Ms. Bhutto's ability to line up all her MPs including, Raza Rabbani and Aitzaz Ahsan (the only two discordant voices in the London meeting), to cast vote for disabling the judiciary is a major worry for Musharraf.

There were many side kicks in PPP chairperson's news conference. . While Ms. Bhutto did not utter even a single word against Musharraf, she flayed PML leaders for derailing the dialogue; accused MMA of being Musharraf's partners in power, exchanged barbs with Nawaz for buying release from jail through a deal in 2000 and berated Imran Khan for supporting Musharraf's referendum..She even accused Nawaz Sharif of indulging in personal vendetta and evaded any comment against Musharraf saying she would not target any individual. Isn't she isolating herself from all the mainstream politics? If so with whom would she share power after elections?


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