Analysis: Bhutto seeks U.S. hand

By ANWAR IQBAL  |  Sept. 21, 2007 at 11:04 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- When former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto arrives in Washington next week, she is likely to seek U.S. support for her attempt to regain power after more than a decade.

Although she is coming to address a Washington think tank, she is also expected to meet senior U.S. officials to discuss the current political situation in her country.

Since July 27, when she had a surprise meeting with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Abu Dhabi, Bhutto has been urging the United States to help restore democracy to Pakistan.

Her hope for U.S. support of her bid to regain power is encouraged by recent statements emanating from Washington. Both the White House and the State Department have said they want to see a “moderate political center” formed in Pakistan.

This political center, as explained by senior U.S. officials, should include Musharraf and “moderate elements of the Pakistani society.”

In Pakistan, this is interpreted as a U.S. effort to forge a Bhutto-Musharraf alliance. Washington does not trust the other major political force in the country, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, because of its close ties to religious parties.

But in view of the rapid political changes in Pakistan, it is difficult to see how much support Bhutto can get from Washington and how helpful that support could be in her quest for power.

Reports in the U.S. and Pakistani media say Washington is already heavily involved in arranging a power-sharing deal between Bhutto and Musharraf. Some reports say U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Richard Boucher traveled to Dubai earlier this month for talks on the deal with Bhutto. He had similar talks with Musharraf in Islamabad before flying to Dubai.

Seen in the backdrop of the U.S. interest in promoting the deal, Bhutto’s Washington visit appears quite important. She is one of those Muslim leaders the United States likes, and it is willing to help restore her politically despite its concerns over charges of corruption and inefficiency charges leveled against her in the past.

This support, however, can only be useful if Musharraf and the Pakistan army feel they need Bhutto’s help to secure yet another five-year term for the general.

But recently, Musharraf has taken certain steps that may free him from needing political support.

Foremost among these steps is an amendment in a law that prevents a government servant -- and as a serving general Musharraf is a government servant -- from seeking an electoral office, such as that of the president.

The Pakistani Constitution requires Musharraf to seek re-election from the national Parliament and provincial legislatures by Oct. 15, which he could not have done in the presence of that law. The new law removes this hurdle.

The Pakistani Supreme Court, however, is already hearing a petition challenging the legality of Musharraf’s decision to keep two posts -- that of the army chief and the president -- and to seek re-election as a government servant.

If the Supreme Court, which has become increasingly independent after winning a major battle against Musharraf earlier this year, decides against the general, he cannot seek re-election with or without Bhutto’s support.

The only option he will have is to impose martial law. And if he goes for this option, he will obviously not need Bhutto’s support.

And if the Supreme Court favors Musharraf, then there will be no need for help from Bhutto or any political leader.

Musharraf, however, may need Bhutto’s support again after the national elections, likely to be held early next year, because the constitution requires him to seek a fresh vote of confidence from the new Parliament and provincial legislatures.

But to make herself indispensable to Musharraf, Bhutto would need impressive victories in both the center and the provinces, and this may prove difficult.

Her party is still popular across Pakistan but faces serious challenges from Sharif’s PML (N) and the ruling PML (Quaid-e-Azam) parties.

PML (N) is particularly strong in the largest province of Punjab while the PML (Q) can also win a substantial number of seats in the province.

Smaller parties with local support -- such as the MQM -- can prevent Bhutto from gaining an overwhelming majority even in her ancestral province of Sindh.

In the provinces of Balochistan and the North West Frontier, a religious alliance called Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal and ethnic groups are strong and may continue to dominate the local scene.

In this situation, no party is likely to get a clear majority either in the center or in the provinces.

And if the elections fail to give a clear lead to any party, then the army, which has ruled Pakistan for 35 of its 60 years of independence, will not need any support. It can simply continue its policy of divide-and-rule that it has so successfully practiced in the past.

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