The growing political crisis in Pakistan has driven two onetime rivals into an alliance. Former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who are both in exile, have teamed up to raise the pressure on President Pervez Musharraf for a return to civilian democratic rule. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas talked to both former leaders to see how they are working together in the current crisis, and files this report.
From 1988 to 1999, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were the lead players on Pakistan's political stage. Their rivalry was intense and bitter.
Now it is President Pervez Musharraf who is in political trouble, and, from their respective exiles, Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif are in an alliance seeking to bring about an end to his military rule and a return to democratic civilian government.
In a phone interview with VOA, Mr. Sharif says Mr. Musharraf is on his way out.
"I think his options are not only limited, but exhausted," he said. "He has lost his writ. The writ of the government is also at its lowest ebb. And Musharraf is taking one action after another which is backfiring."
The Bhutto-Sharif rivalry dominated Pakistan's politics in the 1990s as the country attempted a transition from another military ruler, General Zia Ul-Haq, to democracy. Mr. Sharif and Ms. Bhutto each held the post of prime minister twice, but neither of them ever completed a full five-year term. When one was in office, the opposition rival would scheme to have the president fire the prime minister. This pendulum of power ended when General Musharraf took power from Mr. Sharif in a coup in 1999, and both ex-leaders were forced into exile.
Today, says Mr. Sharif, his relationship with Ms. Bhutto is "cordial," as he termed it, and that they consult on national issues. He says that whatever the outcome of the upcoming elections later this year, he and his onetime rival are determined not to revive the bitter partisanship of the past.
"Of course, the elections will be between Benazir Bhutto and our party, and we'll be fighting the elections against each other," she said. "But that doesn't mean that we have to oppose each other in the same fashion as we opposed in the 1990s. We have learned from some mistakes that were committed in the past, and there will be a good relationship between the opposition and the government, whosoever comes into the government, whosoever is in the opposition. We will see to it that there is a healthy opposition-government relationship."
In a separate VOA interview, Ms. Bhutto says the alliance between her Pakistan Peoples' Party, or PPP, and Mr. Sharif's party, known as the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, is intact, and she would like to keep it that way. However, she says, there is a key difference: Mr. Sharif would like to bring the coalition of Islamist religious parties, known as the MMA, into the opposition alliance. But Ms. Bhutto wants to keep the religious parties away.
"In the past he [Sharif] has worked closely with some of those religious parties, and he is comfortable with them," she said. "But we in the PPP would like to stay away from the religious parties because we would like to send a clear message that the choice in Pakistan is not just between military dictatorship and religious dictatorship. There is a third alternative, and that alternative is a moderate, democratic alternative. So we are trying to avoid coming into an alliance with the MMA. But at the same time, we want to keep our alliance with Mr. Nawaz Sharif intact."
Mr. Sharif says fears about the power of the Islamist parties is overblown, noting that they have never fared well in parliamentary elections, and that Mr. Musharraf is trying to scare the West, and in particular, the United States to support him.
"It is Mr. Musharraf trying to hoodwink the West by giving a false impression that if he is not there, the vacuum will be filled by the Islamists," he said. "No vacuum in Pakistan can be filled by anybody except moderates in Pakistan. We are a moderate party. Benazir Bhutto's party is a moderate party. And it is always between us and her in Pakistan, you see?"
Mr. Sharif also criticized the Bush administration for continuing to support military rule in Pakistan.
"President Bush is preaching democracy in Iraq, he is preaching democracy in Afghanistan, but he is supporting 'uniform democracy' in Pakistan, he is supporting a uniformed president in Pakistan," he said. "How would you like it if I say that President Bush were to start wearing a military uniform in America? So I think this is not fair that he is supporting one individual against the entire nation in Pakistan? So we all feel very hurt by this."
But Richard Boucher, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, tells VOA that President Musharraf is making progress in moving toward elections and battling Islamist insurgents operating out of Pakistan's tribal areas.
"I think the Pakistani government is moving forward," he said. "They're moving towards elections. President Musharraf, I think, spoke about that process. So I recognize the tensions that exist. I recognize these issues do need to be settled. But I think that both the creation of a more modern, democratic state in Pakistan and the fight against insurgency are going forward."
But President Musharraf has said neither Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif would be allowed back into the country for the elections. Both former prime ministers have said they will defy the ban.