Pakistan is on the edge of a critical election season with its political landscape clouded by uncertainty. Two former prime ministers are preparing to return from exile to challenge both the current military ruler and each other. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, their return could bring back the bitter political rivalry that clouded Pakistani politics in the 1990s and ultimately led to military rule.
Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has been engaged in negotiations with President Pervez Musharraf. She wants to return from exile, have corruption charges against her dropped, and participate in upcoming elections. General Musharraf wants another term as president.
Former State Department Pakistan analyst Marvin Weinbaum, now with the Middle East Institute, says that although both sides have claimed that a deal was near, nothing seems to have been finalized.
"Well, it's very hard to follow this. There are all kinds of signals. And it seems as if Musharraf and his crew there haven't really decided where they want to take this," he said.
Mr. Musharraf, whose political standing has eroded in recent months, wants to seek re-election from the current parliament, where he is virtually assured of victory. Ms. Bhutto contends he must wait until after a new general election, which is to be held sometime in the next few months. Marvin Weinbaum says General Musharraf is also reluctant to give up his military position, as Ms. Bhutto has demanded.
"President Musharraf is loath to give up that uniform, and that we've known all along. And he's very fearful also that he may now not be elected president," he said.
Further complicating the picture is a ruling this week by Pakistan's Supreme Court that the man General Musharraf ousted in 1999, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, cannot be prevented from returning to his homeland. In an AP television interview, Mr. Sharif, who says he now plans to return home September 10, sharply criticized the negotiations between Ms. Bhutto and General Musharraf.
"I don't know what is going on between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, and I don't know what is the need to talk to Mr. Musharraf at this stage when he has lost all his popularity and his government writ is no longer visible anywhere in Pakistan. Why a deal at this stage? That is my question. And what purpose is it going to serve? This is my question," he said.
Weinbaum says the political talks have tarnished Ms. Bhutto's political standing in some quarters. "With the fading future of Musharraf, it does appear to a great many people in Pakistan and elsewhere that in order to save her skin, in order to get back into politics, she is willing to save his skin," he said.
But, speaking on the PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Ms. Bhutto denies the charge of political opportunism.
"Well, I wouldn't sell out. The Pakistan People's Party has been struggling to take military out of politics. And the fact that General Musharraf wears a uniform blurs the distinction between civilian and democratic rule," she said.
Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif were bitter political rivals in the 1990s, each serving two incomplete terms as prime minister as one forced the other out. Weinbaum says the lack of a new generation of political leaders raises the prospect that that rivalry could begin anew.
"There are so many people who say, is this all we have in the way of choice? And, unfortunately, this is the way it is. Bangladesh presents a very similar situation, where they can't seem to shed people who are discredited, and yet seem to be able to monopolize the political scene. These leaders have not allowed others to emerge," he said.
Some analysts believe that deepening political chaos may tempt General Musharraf to impose emergency rule, a move he reportedly nearly took in early August.