ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto hopes to forge an alliance with Islamists and other opposition parties to launch a campaign to force military president Pervez Musharraf from power.
U.S. ally Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, plunged the nuclear-armed country into crisis on November 3 when he declared emergency rule, suspended the constitution and rounded up thousands of opponents.
Bhutto had been in power-sharing talks with Musharraf for months and returned to Pakistan from 8 years of self-imposed exile last month, aiming to work with him on a transition to civilian rule.
But outraged by the crackdown, Bhutto said on Tuesday that talks with Musharraf were over, and for the first time called on him to step down as president as well as army chief.
She also telephoned to old rivals including Islamist alliance leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, whom police detained on Wednesday, to urge a “coalition of interests,” party officials said.
“She’s trying to unite all political parties on a minimum agenda to return the country to true democracy,” Latif Khosa, a senator and aide to Bhutto, told Reuters by telephone from the eastern city of Lahore.
“The minimum agenda is the ouster of General Musharraf and formation of a neutral government of national consensus to organize free and fair elections.”
Musharraf, facing growing pressure from allies and rivals to put the country back on a path to democracy, said on the weekend that general elections would be held by January 9. But he did not say when the constitution would be restored or the emergency lifted.
He said the state of emergency would ensure a fair vote.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who last week warned against cutting aid to an “indispensable” ally, is due in Pakistan late this week to urge Musharraf to end the emergency.
But Musharraf on Tuesday rejected that call from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“I totally disagree with her,” he told the New York Times. “The emergency is to ensure elections go in an undisturbed manner.”
He also said Bhutto had no right to demand his resignation.
Musharraf told Britain’s Sky News he had considered resigning but now felt he was the man to lead Pakistan to democracy.
Police have used batons and teargas to break up small protests in various parts of the country since the emergency was declared but there has been no major violence.
Police in Lahore stifled a procession by Bhutto on Tuesday, placing her under house arrest and bundling off clusters of supporters who gathered to chant slogans.
Bhutto, who has been detained in Khosa’s house in Lahore, said her party might boycott the election. She had also spoken to the aides of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, ousted by Musharraf in 1999, Khosa said.
But underscoring the difficulty of uniting Pakistan’s fractious opposition, students loyal to religious alliance leader Ahmed briefly detained Imran Khan when he emerged from hiding to join a campus protest in Lahore.
A spokesman for Khan said the religious students apparently felt Khan, in hiding since Musharraf declared the emergency, was a threat to their dominance on campus and had tried to block his rally with scores of supporters.
Police said they detained Khan as he left the campus.
Analysts say Bhutto’s refusal to have more dealings with Musharraf had isolated the embattled president, who does have the backing of the army and a disparate group of politicians expected to do badly in the polls.
“The entire political spectrum is united to oppose him,” said Talat Masood, a former general and a political analyst.
“He is becoming more and more isolated … such a situation is putting the army in a very awkward position,” he said.
Many Pakistanis are gloomy about prospects and some are disillusioned with old politicians.
Bhutto, for one, had come under fire for being willing to talk to Musharraf despite the way he came to power. She was also dogged by accusations of corruption during her two terms as prime minister.
“Business is going down, the situation is volatile and people feel insecure,” said Abbas Syed who runs a Lahore IT business.
But he said he did not support Bhutto: “We need somebody new.”