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Pakistan Politics Mired in Uncertainty

Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, signed an order dropping corruption charges against former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto Friday, paving the way for her to return home from self-imposed exile. However, as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, there is much in Pakistani politics that remains unresolved.

The Musharraf and Bhutto camps have been in negotiations for months about Pakistan's political future. General Musharraf's order granting amnesty, which was announced one day before the presidential election, will allow Ms. Bhutto to return to Pakistan as planned on October 18, without fear of being arrested.

But Marvin Weinbaum, a former Pakistan analyst for the State Department, says negotiations between General Musharraf and Bhutto have not resolved the central question of where the center of power will reside on Pakistan's political landscape.

"All it solves is that it gets her back home free, and it gets him a little bit more legitimacy than he would have had otherwise in the election," he said. "Beyond that, it doesn't touch the issue of civilian military control..."

The Eighth Amendment to the Pakistan Constitution gives the president the power to fire the prime minister. Weinbaum says changing that rule would be critical for Bhutto.

"She needs that Eighth Amendment [to the Constitution] changed," he said. "She really does - a promise, at least, that it will be taken up, and that is, of course, that he gives up the power to dissolve the parliament as president, which he would be loathe to do because, without the uniform, what does he have left?"

Ms. Bhutto was fired twice under that provision. Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was dismissed once by the president. The second time he was ousted, it was by a bloodless military coup in 1999, led by army chief General Pervez Musharraf.

Since then, General Musharraf held the posts of both president and military chief, and the job of prime minister has been relegated to a secondary role.

One of Bhutto's key demands had been that he relinquish his role as army chief before running for re-election as president. General Musharraf has pledged to give up his military post, if re-elected, and has nominated a loyalist, the former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, to replace him in that role.

Throughout Pakistan's history, and especially in the 1990s, civilian politicians and the military have vied for political supremacy.

The civilian power was vested in the prime minister under a parliamentary system. But the military was also a power player, often through the president. Marvin Weinbaum says that struggle may well be revived by Ms. Bhutto's return to the political scene.

"It strikes a lot of people that all you're doing is, you're recreating the 1990s, where you've got a president who is speaking for the army, and who serves really as the bridge between the army and the prime minister, and the deck is very much weighed in favor of the military," he said. "Given the way it is now, that's what I think we're looking at - the same kind of unsettled political scene that we saw through the '90s."

Parliamentary elections are to be held late this year or early in 2008. Walter Andersen, former chief of the South Asia desk at the State Department's intelligence bureau, says there are questions about whether the changes made by General Musharraf in 2002, which, in effect, changed Pakistan from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, were legal. He says the courts could rule on that, as well.

"A lot of people say it wasn't ratified," he said. "And they [the courts] could rule against him on that, returning the government to a kind of system of a kind of a equidistance between the president and the prime minister. Now that's a prescription for military involvement. He [Musharraf] might not mind because, then, the military then becomes the third actor, playing one against the other, as it did throughout the 1990s."

General Musharraf also issued an ordinance barring any twice-serving prime minister from seeking a third term. As long as that is in effect, Ms. Bhutto could not regain her old office, even if her party were to win the general elections outright.