Bhutto steers party into opposition camp

Ex-Pakistani premier calls on followers to protest

November 08, 2007|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- After several days of indecision and muted comments, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto stepped forward yesterday and called on her supporters to protest President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule, saying she would hold a demonstration tomorrow in neighboring Rawalpindi, despite a government ban.

Bhutto's announcement throws the weight of her powerful Pakistan People's Party, which had been debating how to react to Musharraf's suspension of the constitution, into the opposition camp. She also set conditions for restarting negotiations over a possible power-sharing deal with Musharraf that she appears to have abandoned - for now, at least.

"We engaged in a political dialogue with Musharraf," Bhutto said at a news conference yesterday. "But instead of finding ourselves in a democratic order, we find ourselves back in a dictatorship."

Bhutto's announcement - and a protest afterward in which police fired tear-gas canisters at her supporters - raised concerns that the relative calm since Musharraf's emergency order over the weekend could deteriorate into bigger clashes.

She said that if Musharraf does not restore the constitution, step down as army chief and schedule parliamentary elections by January, she would launch a protest march from the eastern city of Lahore on Tuesday. But if Musharraf fulfills those conditions, Bhutto said, it could "kick-start" negotiations between the two sides.

Bhutto, who returned from exile Oct. 18 after corruption charges against her were dropped, holds out hopes of regaining her role as prime minister. While she says her mission is restoring full democracy to Pakistan, critics said Bhutto could be trying to appear opposed to Musharraf while holding open the possibility of future negotiations.

Bhutto invited other opposition groups to a meeting at her party headquarters in Islamabad yesterday, but only 13 small political parties showed up. The other major opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, and other groups boycotted the meeting.

"She's trying to play both sides," said Raja Ashfaq Sarwar, a provincial leader of PML-N.

President Bush, meanwhile, echoed Bhutto's demands yesterday, saying he told Musharraf that Pakistan must go through with parliamentary elections and Musharraf must step down as military leader. Earlier, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte called the U.S.-allied general an "indispensable" ally in the global war on terror in testimony on Capitol Hill.

Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999, is facing the toughest challenge of his political career. His unsuccessful attempt to fire the country's popular chief justice in March sparked protests calling for him to step down as army chief and energized a Supreme Court that began ruling against him for the first time.

On Saturday, Musharraf declared emergency rule, which closely resembles martial law, because of the rising threat from militants and a hostile judiciary. But critics say Musharraf worried most about a coming ruling by the Supreme Court on the validity of last month's presidential election.

Bhutto, a former two-time prime minister who went into exile in 1999, is considered the one person who could tilt the balance against Musharraf. But this year, Bhutto began negotiating with Musharraf and largely avoided the opposition movement.

Since the emergency was declared, at least 3,000 people have been arrested, most of them lawyers, human-rights activists or members of the PML-N. Bhutto said at least 400 of her party workers were rounded up yesterday.

After her announcement, about 300 followers marched toward the country's parliament building to demonstrate, but police fired tear-gas canisters at protesters, pushed them back with batons and riot shields, and arrested several.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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