ISLAMABAD (AFP) -After nine years in the political wilderness Pakistan’s former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has entered into a high-stakes political gamble by courting the country’s beleaguered military ruler.
Bhutto secretly met General Pervez Musharraf in Abu Dhabi on July 27 to discuss a power-sharing arrangement, seen by the United States as a way to broaden the political support base of its key ally in the “war on terror.”
A deal could lead to Bhutto’s return to power — but failure would likely mean a continued stay in self-imposed exile.
Yet a deal with the general would also carry risks for the former premier, whose father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and was hanged by a previous military ruler in 1979.
“This could fragment her party and jeopardize her future political prospects,” political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP.
“She is relying on the United States card hoping that American influence on Musharraf will facilitate her return to Pakistan and perhaps a share in power.”
The general faces opposition from his political allies in the heartland province of Punjab to any agreement with the PPP ahead of a general election due this year.
Askari said Musharraf would not need the PPP’s vote to get elected president from the current parliament, whose tenure expires on November 15.
“Musharraf only wants her party to stay aloof from the opposition when the presidential election takes place sometime between September 15 and October 15. Once he has crossed that bar he will play tough game with her,” Askari predicted.
Bhutto became Pakistan’s first woman prime minister after military dictator Zia-ul-Haq died in plane crash in 1988. She had led her party to victory in elections and rose to power in a deal with the powerful military establishment.
Her relations with the military soured, however, resulting in the dismissal of her corruption-tainted government in 1990.
She regained the top office when her party won the 1993 election, but was sacked over corruption charges three years later.
When Musharraf called parliamentary elections in October 2002, two years after seizing power in a bloodless coup, Bhutto’s party won the most votes and 80 seats in the 342-member National Assembly.
The military strongman ran into a crisis of his own making in March when he moved to unseat chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, provoking nationwide agitation by lawyers and opposition parties.
In a major blow to the ruler, the Supreme Court on July 20 overturned misconduct charges against Chaudhry and reinstated him.
Continuing bloody unrest in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and a mini insurgency in southwestern Baluchistan have added to his woes.
So has a spate of revenge suicide attacks over a bloody operation last month against militants holed up in the Red Mosque in Islamabad.
Some analysts say Musharraf has been weakened by recent events, and Bhutto could put some popular gloss on his presidency.
The worst case scenario for Bhutto is that she supports Musharraf and the newly independent Supreme Court knocks out his re-election bid, Askari said.
Militant sources told AFP that Bhutto would be taking a big risk if she supported Musharraf, who is loathed by extremists for his key role in the US-led fight against terrorism.
Only a day after she praised the Red Mosque operation, her party headquarters was attacked by a lone suicide bomber, killing 15 people, most of them PPP workers.
“She will be an easy target for the militants,” an official of the banned group Jaish-e-Mohammad told AFP.
PPP sources said they opened dialogue with Musharraf because they did not want to give free range to religious extremists.
But Bhutto insists her party is not ready to accept Musharraf as president in uniform. Political commentator Shafqat Mahmood said Bhutto was convinced the military would not cede power because of overwhelming US support.
“She feels that if she loses an opportunity to strike a deal now she will be dealt out of the power game for at least another five years,” he said.
Mahmood said Musharraf “remains the Americans’ best bet in Pakistan as they still believe in a military solution to the problem of Al-Qaeda and Taliban in tribal areas.”
The “grand plan” is that Musharraf be re-elected by the current parliament with the tacit support of Bhutto’s party and then offer the PPP a share in power in a post-election partnership.
“The American game plan is that army chief Musharraf supported by a popular political party takes on Al-Qaeda and Taliban and does the job,” said Mahmood.
Bhutto “thinks this is her best opportunity because both Musharraf and the United States need her and she can get over her legal difficulties and regain power,” Mahmood said.
Bhutto still needs pending corruption cases against her and husband Asif Ali Zardari dropped to pave the way for her return.
A bar on politicians becoming prime minister for a third term, imposed by Musharraf, would also have to be removed.