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‘Time running out for deal with Musharraf’

Former Pak PM Benazir Bhutto spells out her position on talks with President Musharraf and a possible return to her country in an interview to Vijay Dutt.

world Updated: Aug 03, 2007 03:42 IST
Vijay Dutt

In an exclusive interview with Vijay Dutt, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto spells out her position on talks with President Pervez Musharraf and a possible return to Pakistan.

There is a lot of speculation on whether or not you have struck a deal with President Pervez Musharraf. The whole world seems to waiting for details on the deal, if any.

I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic about an agreement being worked out between General Musharraf and the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) on the restoration of democracy and the rule of law. However, time is running out. In less than six months several elections will occur, including the presidential, general and prime ministerial elections.

Does the deal, if any, have to be implemented by the General before you proceed to Pakistan?

From the PPP perspective, we would like to see a phased implementation that is calibrated to give both sides confidence.

On what terms would you agree to lead Pakistan once again?

The PPP and I are aiming to facilitate Pakistan’s transition to democracy. However, to deal with the issues confronting the people of Pakistan including the rise in poverty, unemployment and lack of security due to acts of terrorism, it’s important for a balance in power between the Presidency and Parliament. Democracy in the nineties was destabilised. This was due to the presidential power to dismiss the Parliament and the Prime Minister. It would be difficult for any Prime Minister to lead Pakistan properly while the threat of arbitrary removal remains.

Is it possible to get an amendment passed in the present assembly to remove the hurdle in your becoming PM for the third time?

This is one of the issues on the agenda. The PPP believes that the people of Pakistan must be free to choose their elected leaders according to parliamentary traditions where there are no bans on twice elected Prime Ministers.

Presumably, Gen Musharraf has sought your help in getting re-elected. On what terms will you agree? And will it be done by the current assemblies or new ones?

The PPP, as well as the lawyer’s community, dispute the legality of a presidential election from the current assemblies and of a chief of army staff. Should General Musharaf seek re-election from this Assembly, the matter will end up in the judicial forums. General Musharaf has said that he would seek elections from the current Assembly therefore re-election from the next Assembly is not an issue currently before us.

You have issued warnings about the growing strength of militants in Pakistan. Do you believe this problem can be tackled by a democratic set-up?

It is only by addressing the basic needs of the people for food, clothing, shelter, education, health and empowerment that the people of Pakistan can become stakeholders in society. Through such participation of the people, the forces of militancy and extremism can be weakened.

Fundamentalism, which has stoked militancy, is said to have been boosted by a section in the army. Can this section be controlled now, given the people’s support for you. Will Musharraf help you?

This is a big question and only time can tell. Part of it will depend on the nature of the constitution and the ability of the political parties to build a political structure. At present, the military comes under the President and the presidency is responsible for security issues. Further, while the presidential power to dismiss parliament and the prime minister remains, the ability of parliament to domestically tackle militancy would be constrained unless balance is restored between the presidency and the parliament.

Has the Lal Masjid operation led to problems for the President, which may become uncontrollable unless a new government is brought in?

The Lal Masjid operation demonstrates inaction of the regime in consistently confronting extremists and terrorists in a timely and effective manner. The militant cleric (Abdul Rashid) Ghazi was arrested a few years back trying to smuggle weapons into Islamabad. He was released on the intervention of a Cabinet minister who continues to hold office. I don’t know of another country, which permits Cabinet ministers to protect those planning mutiny against the state. Moreover, when the mosque was first taken over by extremists in January this year, and people in burkas went out on the streets of Islamabad to beat innocent civilians, the government failed to act swiftly…the growing crisis at the mosque ultimately forced the government to act, albeit too late to stop the bloodbath that ensued.

Do you apprehend, as some analysts have voiced, that Musharraf might postpone both the presidential and National Assembly elections? What will be your course of action then?

Some analysts have indeed voiced concerns that Emergency may be imposed and the general elections postponed. If Emergency is imposed, it would be challenged in the courts. Moreover, the lawyers’ movement for the rule of law would be reignited. Therefore, an attempt to impose Emergency would complicate the crisis rather than resolve it. The PPP does not support the imposition of Emergency.

Are you now determined to return to Pakistan whether a deal is done or not?

Yes.

If Musharraf does not shed his khaki uniform, what is the alternative? Is it possible to cut a deal under which the civil government will not to have total dependence on the army?

In the Opposition's assessment, the mood in the country has changed and cannot any longer sustain a uniformed Presidency beyond the constitutional limits. The dialogue is aimed at facilitating a transition to democracy. That cannot happen if the elected government is totally dependant on an unelected institution.

Is there any possibility that if talks fail, the General, forced to postpone the election, will go in for another limited war across the border?

I doubt that the Pakistan armed forces will go in for a limited war across the border in the event that the domestic crisis deepens. The Musharaf regime has publicly declared that it is engaged in a dialogue with India aimed at building better relations.