Bhutto seeks consensus

Pakistani opposition splintered, shackled by state of emergency

November 15, 2007|By Henry Chu

LAHORE, Pakistan -- Leaders of this country's fractured political opposition began taking the first steps yesterday toward uniting against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who is facing widespread dissent after more than a week of emergency rule.

But the difficulties of overcoming internal divisions and the rigors of de facto martial law were quickly made clear during the arrest of one of Pakistan's most famous public figures, cricketer-turned-opposition politician Imran Khan, at an anti-Musharraf student rally here that broke into factional fighting.

Opposition leaders are navigating a new political landscape in the wake of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's announcement Tuesday that she had given up on power-sharing talks with Musharraf.

Bhutto spent yesterday contacting other parties "to try and forge a consensus on the minimal agenda of getting democracy restored and the people's rights reinstated," said Latif Khosa, a senator from the ex-premier's Pakistan People's Party. "Hopefully, very soon there could be possibly a united national consensus."

Bhutto has been holed up with her aides in Khosa's home in Lahore since Monday night. Rifle-wielding police served her with a seven-day detention order early Tuesday to prevent her from leading an anti-Musharraf motorcade from this eastern city to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

The challenge now is to stitch together an alliance of parties more used to squabbling than cooperating. Hostility toward Musharraf's regime might be a common denominator, but the factions are a mixed lot, including secular and religious groups, headed by leaders who command power bases in different parts of the country.

Khosa said that Bhutto, a polarizing figure in the past, had reached out to parties of all stripes, including an Islamist group whose ideology is in many ways antithetical to her more secular, pro-Western orientation.

A significant boost to her effort to form a united anti-Musharraf front came in positive comments by a longtime foe, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

"We are ready to set aside our differences with the People's Party," Sharif told the Reuters news agency by telephone from Saudi Arabia, where he has lived in exile since Musharraf overthrew him in a military coup eight years ago.

Musharraf declared a national state of emergency Nov. 3, assuming broad powers he said were necessary for him to suppress an insurgency along Pakistan's borders, where Taliban and al-Qaida sympathizers are known to operate.

But most of his security forces' efforts since then have been focused on rounding up thousands of his critics, including lawyers, human-rights activists and opposition party workers. Basic constitutional rights have been shelved, and media freedoms have been curtailed.

Today is the legally mandated deadline for Musharraf to shed his military uniform and rule as a strictly civilian president. But he said he will not take that step until a newly impaneled Supreme Court, filled with his allies, ratifies his re-election last month by lawmakers.

That will probably take place this month, Musharraf said in an interview Wednesday with the Associated Press - the closest he has come to setting a date for his resignation as army chief. He told the Associated Press that his leadership was indispensable for Pakistan.

"All those who are blunt enough to tell me to my face what the reality is, all of them think, yes, it will lead the country to chaos if I do not handle the political environment now with me remaining as the president," he said.

The task of cobbling together an opposition alliance is a daunting one, as what happened to Khan, a persistent Musharraf critic, showed yesterday.

When he arrived at noon on the campus of the University of the Punjab, where about 200 students demonstrated against the government, Khan was greeted like a pop star. Khan, 54, is widely admired by youth as a legendary athlete and generous philanthropist, if not for his recent foray into politics as head of the Movement for Justice party.

Within minutes, what had been a relatively unified anti-Musharraf protest turned into an ugly face-off between factions.

Khan was shanghaied by students belonging to the hard-line Muslim Jamaat-e-Islami party, who said they objected to the presence of an overtly political leader, who also happens to be relatively secular.

When Khan was bundled off into a white university van to cart him off about an hour later, scuffles broke out between his supporters and Jamaat-e-Islami followers. At the university gate, the radical students handed Khan over to police, from whom he had been hiding since the first night of the emergency.

Saif Niazi, an official with the Movement for Justice, said Khan was formally arrested and charged under Pakistan's anti-terrorism law.

His offense has not been specified.

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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