Ex-premier Benazir Bhutto's party on Thursday rejected a call from President Gen Pervez Musharraf to delay her return from exile, insisting she would land in Pakistan as planned next week to campaign for January elections. Bhutto, who went into self-imposed exile in 1999 to escape corruption charges, plans a grand homecoming on Oct 18.
After months of power-sharing talks, Pakistan's military leader last week enacted an amnesty quashing cases against her and other politicians. But Musharraf on Wednesday urged Bhutto to postpone her return to Pakistan until after the Supreme Court rules on his own eligibility for a new five-year presidential term. The court is due to resume hearings on Oct 17, a day before Bhutto is scheduled to land in Karachi.
"I would say she should not come before" the court verdict, Musharraf said in an interview with Pakistan's ARY news channel. "She should come later, after the 18th (of October)," he said. Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, said the two-time prime minister was sticking to her plans. "Mohtarma Bhutto will come on Oct 18 as scheduled," Babar told The Associated Press. Mohtarma is an honorific.
He denied a report in the Dawn daily that Bhutto would discuss a possible delay with senior aides on Thursday. He confirmed the meeting was taking place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, but said a postponement was not on the agenda.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, swept a presidential election by lawmakers last weekend, but faces at least a week or so of political limbo until the court decides whether he can take up office. If the court rules in his favor, he has promised to relinquish his command of the army.
But opponents argue that Musharraf should have been disqualified from running anyway under a constitutional bar on public servants seeking elected office.
Speculation persists Musharraf could declare martial law if disqualified. In Wednesday's interview, Musharraf was non-committal on how he would react if the court ruled against him. "We will cross the bridge when we reach it," he said. His term expires on Nov 15.
Bhutto and Musharraf are eying a possible alliance if her party fares well in the parliamentary election that Prime Shaukat Aziz on Wednesday said would be held in January.
Though longtime rivals, Bhutto and Musharraf both are pro-American and have called for moderate forces to reverse a resurgence of Taliban and al-Qaida militants along the Afghan border.
Violence linked to growing Islamic militancy in Pakistan has killed more than 1,000 people in a little over three months, fanning opposition to the country's close alliance with the United States. Adding to the current political uncertainty, the party of another exiled former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, threatened on Thursday to boycott the parliamentary vote, claiming the current election commissioner was biased toward the government.
"These elections under Gen Pervez Musharraf cannot be free and fair," Raja Zafarul Haq, chairman of Sharif's Pakistan's Muslim League-N party, said. "A new chief election commissioner should be appointed with the consultation of the opposition parties." Opposition parties largely boycotted Saturday's presidential vote. They claimed that the election commission had altered election rules in favor of Musharraf. They also protested him seeking a new term from outgoing assemblies rather than a new parliament.