ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s party announced Friday she would return Oct. 18 from an eight-year exile to campaign in Pakistan’s general elections. The government said she was free to come back but would have to face corruption cases against her.
Makhdoom Amin Fahim, vice president of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, said she would land in Karachi and would bring democracy to Pakistan. Supporters, throwing flower petals and lighting firecrackers, chanted: “Long Live Benazir! Prime Minister Benazir!” Bhutto would return regardless of outcome of talks with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf that could see them share power after the elections, party official said. Her return will fall after Musharraf’s expected bid to seek a new presidential term from lawmakers, due by Oct. 15. Parliamentary elections will follow by January 2008, and Bhutto hopes to become Pakistan’s prime minister for a third time.
“The people of Pakistan will get real democracy” after Bhutto’s return, Fahim said, speaking in front of a huge portrait of the party leader. He urged supporters and voters to receive Bhutto when she lands at the airport in Karachi, the capital of her home province of Sindh, before she tours Pakistan on her election campaign.
Earlier, a government spokesman said that Bhutto will not be deported in the manner of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, a government spokesman said. Sharif was expelled hours after he flew in on Monday.
That action sidelined Musharraf’s chief political rival while indicating the general’s willingness to take authoritarian steps to extend his eight-year rule, amid a surge in attacks by Islamic militants. “We have decided that she (Bhutto) is coming back, talks or no talks,” Sen. Babar Awan, another party leader. “This is the moment when the Pakistani nation has to redefine itself … Now is the time for struggle.” However, Fahim said the door for negotiations would remain open until Oct. 18. “In politics, you never close the door for negotiations,” he said.
In an interview Friday, Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim drew a clear distinction between the rights of Sharif and Bhutto to return to Pakistan. “Nawaz Sharif’s case was different. He went back to Saudi Arabia because of an undertaking he had with the Saudi government,” Azim told The Associated Press. “She (Bhutto) was always allowed to come back.”
Asked about pending corruption cases against Bhutto, he added: “It’s for the law to take its own course. Everybody has to face cases against them and the same applies to her.” Azim said the talks with Bhutto were snagged over her desire for the corruption cases to be closed, for a constitutional amendment to let her seek a third term as prime minister, and over the president’s re-election. “The talks are continuing but not at the same pace we might have wished. It’s in the national interest for a resolution between political leaders to be reached. But it should be in the national interest, not in the personal interest of anyone,” Azim said.
Bhutto, who served as prime minister twice between 1988 and 1996, has led her party from exile in London and Dubai since leaving Pakistan in 1999 over the corruption allegations. She risks a backlash among the public and her party if she strikes an agreement with the U.S.-allied military leader, who ousted Sharif in a 1999 coup. On Friday, Sharif’s party urged her not to reach terms with Musharraf. “We welcome her coming back, but let me say that it will be an insult to democracy if she agrees to share power with a man who ousted the elected government of Nawaz Sharif and has caused irreparable damage to democratic institutions,” said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a senior figure in the party. Musharraf, a key Washington ally, has been trying for months to reach an agreement with Bhutto that would overcome legal obstacles to him seeking a new five-year term.
With less than five weeks before the presidential election, Bhutto’s party says time is running out, though with Sharif out of the way, Musharraf may be in a stronger position to dictate terms.
Azim said the schedule for the presidential vote by lawmakers would be announced in the next three or four days.