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Political Turmoil in Pakistan Deepens


Pakistan is nearing a critical election season in which Pervez Musharraf, its president and current military ruler, faces challenges from two exiled former prime ministers. General Musharraf’s popularity has plummeted over the past six months, since he tried to remove the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

General Musharraf wants a third term as president of Pakistan and has been engaged in negotiations with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The 56-year-old former two-term prime minister is trying to return from exile through negotiations with General Musharraf. Under the terms of her return she asks that corruption charges against her be dropped, and she be made eligible for an unprecedented third term as prime minister. She is also insisting that General Musharraf give up his command of the Pakistani army. A week ago there were reports of an imminent power-sharing deal between the two, but then the talks seemed to fall through.

According to VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand in Islamabad, their representatives are now talking again and reporting some progress, although major challenges lie ahead. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Sand says Mr. Musharraf is facing very stiff resistance from his own political supporters. They are worried he may be giving away too much if he allows Ms. Bhutto to come back and contest elections and become prime minister.

Yet another exiled former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has announced his return to Pakistan next week to take part in the elections. But Benjamin Sand says Mr. Sharif could still face the jail term he had avoided by accepting 10 years of exile in Saudi Arabia. But he notes that Nawaz Sharif has garnered tremendous political support by opposing the talks between President Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. And Mr. Sharif has “resurrected his political career” by positioning himself as a “righteous ideologue opposed to the politically calculating Musharraf and Bhutto.”

British journalist Richard Beeston, diplomatic editor of The Times of London, says he expects to be among the group of journalists accompanying Nawaz Sharif on September 10 when he arrives at the Islamabad airport. He notes that General Musharraf has said that, if Mr. Sharif does return, he will be “put on the next plane” and sent back into exile. Or alternatively, he could be arrested for charges pending against him. Mr. Beeston says he thinks that Mr. Sharif has “calculated quite cleverly” that, surrounded by journalists, even if he is arrested, it could “work to his benefit politically.”

But Anwar Iqbal of Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, says that – despite the current political turmoil in Pakistan – he sees no threat to the country but a considerable threat to President Musharraf. However, Mr. Iqbal says he does not foresee widespread political protests or religious extremists “suddenly becoming popular or coming out on the streets and challenging the government.”

VOA’s Benjamin Sand says he is less sanguine and he thinks that nobody can envision how what he calls Pakistan’s “incredible political chess match” might play out. Mr. Sand says one of the people who have been watching the Pakistani political scene for decades recently told him that “military dictatorships never end the way you think they will,” and it is “always sudden and usually fairly violent.” And Mr. Sand adds, General Musharraf is regarded among some analysts as having a “very myopic vision of Pakistan” as equating its political survival with his own career.

Richard Beeston agrees that the Pakistani situation is precarious, and several possibilities exist – a deal between General Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, the imposition of emergency rule, or even his removal from office.

And amid all the political confusion, Mr. Beeston says, Western governments are concerned that Osama bin Laden is “still hiding in the tribal lands of Pakistan” and that a resurgent Taleban is using Pakistan to “launch attacks into Afghanistan,” where al-Qaida is still operating. So, according to Mr. Beeston, the picture is indeed “very confused and unsettling.”

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.