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Old Rivals Poised to Re-enter Pakistan Political Stage

  • Gary Thomas

Two former prime ministers of Pakistan say they will return from their self-imposed exiles. During the 1990s Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif engaged in a bitter political rivalry. But, as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the past may not necessarily repeat itself.

The entrance to the prime minister's office in Islamabad was a revolving door in the 1990s.

Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto were each elected twice, and each twice booted out of office before their term ended. Both fell victim to temporary alliances between their rivals and the country's once powerful military. Sharif's last ouster came in 1999 when Army Chief of Staff, General Pervez Musharraf, staged a bloodless coup, and both Bhutto and Sharif went into exile with allegations of corruption hanging over them.

Now, with General Musharraf's grip on power in jeopardy and presidential and general elections looming in the coming months, Sharif and Bhutto are planning on returning home, raising the specter of a bitter political rivalry being rekindled.

But much has changed in Pakistan since the 1990s. For one thing, analysts say, the military's standing in Pakistan has suffered.

Frederic Grare, South Asia analyst at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, says Bhutto and Sharif will both find it difficult to get the military to ally itself with one side or the other, as it did during the bitter rivalry that took place in the 1990s.

"The fact that there is a clear rejection of army power will certainly be helpful in civilizing the political debate between the two. That said, it's a little difficult to really foresee what happens when they go back," he said.

Kamran Bokhari, a Pakistan affairs analyst at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says Bhutto and Sharif realize that any return to the level of their previous political infighting risks bringing the military back into play.

"There is this understanding that, 'you know, we can't behave the way we did during the '90s," said Bokhari. "Clearly, we've been out of power for so long, we don't want that to happen again. We've been working so hard we're not about to squander the opportunity.' So there is an understanding that, look, we'll keep the rivalry within what they say are acceptable parameters or acceptable limits so that we don't give the military an excuse to come back in."

Bhutto has been negotiating with General Musharraf to allow her unhindered return under some kind of power-sharing deal. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Teresita Schaffer, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says any deal that in effect prearranges the political contours and shuts Nawaz Sharif out is a dubious proposition.

"The difficulty with that is, first, I doubt that President Musharraf has the temperament to share power," said Schaffer. "Second, by trying to get everything figured out in advance, and in particular by trying to keep Nawaz Sharif out of the picture, what they are trying to do is to set up another pre-cooked system. I don't think that can work at this point. Too much has happened."

For his part, Sharif has denounced the Bhutto-Musharraf talks and has said he will not negotiate with a dictator.

New technologies have also affected how Pakistanis perceive political developments. While there was a free press in the Bhutto and Sharif years, the broadcast media remained under state control. Paradoxically, the Musharraf government has loosened the government monopoly on broadcast outlets, and some 30 radio and television stations, such as Geo TV and Aaj TV, have sprung up. Stratfor's Kamran Bokhari says the new independent outlets are being tough on government officials or politicians in a way unheard of in the 1990s.

"The media is not being hard just on the military just because the military is ruling," he said. "They're also being tough on political parties, especially if you notice how biting the questions become when political figures are grilled on talk shows or even just by people like anchors on news shows. So it gives you a sense that these people are not going to be let off the hook easily, and [therefore] all the more reason for them to maintain a check on their mutual rivalry so that it doesn't really explode."

And where it once took months and often bribes to just get a telephone landline installed, now nearly everyone has a mobile phone.

Much will depend, of course, on how General Musharraf reacts to Bhutto and Sharif when they return. He could choose to have them arrested once they set foot on Pakistani soil. But that could set off a wave of unrest, with the call to the streets spread by text messaging on cell phones.