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Pakistan Opposition Leader Bhutto Leaves Door Open to Compromise


Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto says she remains open to working with President Pervez Musharraf, but only if next month's parliamentary elections are free and fair. President Musharraf has lifted the state of emergency he imposed in November. But as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, that is not enough to dispel Bhutto's concerns about electoral rigging in January's vote.

Speaking to VOA by telephone, Benazir Bhutto says she may still find it possible to cooperate with President Musharraf. But, she adds, that will depend on what happens in the January 8 elections.

"It's very difficult to say anything on this matter at this stage," she said. "A lot will depend on the elections themselves and what the mood of the people is following the elections, because if the elections are rigged, it's going to put General Musharraf on a confrontation course with the opposition parties."

Ms. Bhutto says Mr. Musharraf could still surprise people by conducting an honest vote, although she believes that is a remote possibility.

"At the moment the situation is not conducive to fair elections within Pakistan," she added. "But certainly General Musharraf has taken some steps that surprised many people, including me. And that included retiring as chief of army staff. So if he surprises us all by having a fair election, that will be very welcome. But the way things are going today, that would be a very big surprise."

Ms. Bhutto says that preparations for electoral fraud are already well under way, including falsifying voter registration rolls with what she calls ghost voters and intimidation of voters by local government-appointed officials.

Teresita Schaffer, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, notes that President Musharraf has laid down restrictions on traditional political party activity under an electoral code of conduct.

"Long processions are banned, and rallies can be held only if you get a non-objection certificate from the government," she said. "And he [Musharraf] keeps saying 'I'm for a wide open election campaign, but there can't be any agitation.' So he's obviously trying to set the standard that whatever you do during the election, you can't include getting lots of people together which, as you know, is the way elections are conducted in Pakistan. That's how you spread the word. That's how you energize the [political party] troops."

Ms. Bhutto served twice as prime minister of Pakistan in the 1990s. After years of self-imposed exile, she negotiated a return home with President Musharraf under a deal that included the dropping of standing corruption charges against her.

The opposition parties had considered boycotting the polls, but Ms. Bhutto said her party decided in the end not to concede the field.

"When my father was in prison under an earlier military dictatorship, he had still told the party to go ahead and fight so we could keep my party political machinery well-oiled, and we could have an opportunity to meet the public, meet the voters, and communicate our message to them," she explained. "So we thought it was better to have a political process than to leave the field open."

She will run for a parliamentary seat in the election as head of her Pakistan Peoples Party and hopes to once again become prime minister.

Another opposition leader and former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has been barred from running himself but his party will contest in the polls.

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