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Pakistan Political Landscape Still Uncertain Despite Return of Former PM Bhutto

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's return to Pakistan Thursday after eight years of self-imposed exile does not automatically clear the uncertainty in Pakistan's political landscape. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, it is only a first step.

Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party organized a welcome by thousands of jubilant supporters for her arrival in Karachi.

But general elections are still several months off, and it is not clear if the street power on display Thursday will translate into votes. Analysts say there are still formidable obstacles in the way of Bhutto achieving her ultimate goal: a return to the prime minister's chair that she held, and lost, twice in the 1990s.

Former State Department intelligence analyst Marvin Weinbaum says Bhutto is trying to present a new image to the Pakistani public.

"She is very anxious to convey the idea that she has learned from her mistakes, although she doesn't really admit that there were mistakes. But, she wants to give the impression that this is a fresh start," he said.

Facing prosecution for alleged corruption, Bhutto left Pakistan in 1999, the same year General Pervez Musharraf mounted a bloodless coup against then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. To ensure she would not be arrested upon returning this week, Bhutto entered into negotiations with President Musharraf, who recently granted her amnesty on the corruption charges.

But Teresita Schaffer, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, says the talks did little to enhance the popularity of either Bhutto or General Musharraf.

"Pakistanis have rather soured on General Musharraf, but Benazir Bhutto's popularity has not, perhaps, held up as well as she might have hoped. There's a certain amount of disillusionment about the negotiating process with which she undertook before she came back," she said.

General Musharraf sparked significant protests against his rule earlier this year, when he tried to fire the chief justice of the Supreme Court. That public anger, say analysts, emboldened both Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to attempt political comebacks.

The provincial assemblies and national parliament re-elected General Musharraf president October 6, but the Supreme Court said the outcome could not be certified until legal challenges to his candidacy were resolved. The opposition claims the re-election was illegal because General Musharraf ran for president while still holding onto his post as chief of the military.

He has said he will relinquish his uniform, if his reelection is confirmed.

The Supreme Court is also set to rule on a number of other issues that will help determine Pakistan's political future.

Other legal challenges to aspects of General Musharraf's rule are still under consideration, including the decision to deport former prime minister Sharif, who also lived in self-imposed exile, when he attempted to return to Pakistan last month. And the court has said Bhutto's amnesty is subject to legal review as well.

Another issue that could involve court arbitration is an ordinance promulgated by President Musharraf which stipulates that no one who has served twice as prime minister can serve a third term - a clear bar to Bhutto's ambition.

Schaffer says, even if Bhutto manages to achieve her goal of becoming prime minister again, there will still be tough negotiations over the relationship between the civilian politicians and the powerful military establishment.

"If she gets over that hurdle and emerges as prime minister, then she and President Musharraf and the new army chief - assuming that President Musharraf does take off his uniform, which I expect he will, if his election is confirmed - but then the issue will be how do those three work out their relationship. My guess is that's going to be a very complicated process," she said.

Analysts say Bhutto and her supporters want to strip the president of his power to dismiss the prime minister and government, which happened to Bhutto twice in the 1990s, but that any such effort will encounter stiff resistance from the president's camp.