NYT : Musharraf Rival Prepares for Return

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Musharraf Rival Prepares for Return

By CARLOTTA GALL | October 18, 2007

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 17 — The Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto confirmed today her determination to return to her home city of Karachi on Thursday after an eight-year absence, despite threats from militants and pressure from the government to delay her return.

“This time tomorrow we’ll be on board the plane to Karachi,” she said at a news conference in this booming Gulf city, which has been her home for much of the last decade. She said she anticipated that a “sea of people” would greet her on the “day that I and all the people in Pakistan, who love democracy and believe in fundamental human rights, have been waiting for.”

Ms. Bhutto, who served twice as prime minister in the 1990s but left Pakistan under a cloud of corruption charges and accusations of mismanagement, is planning to run in parliamentary elections set for the first half of January.

Her return comes after lengthy and difficult negotiations with Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, that would allow him to continue for another five-year term as a civilian president and for her to seek the post of prime minister at the head of her political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party.

Ms. Bhutto said that she recognized that she was returning to many unknowns, and not only regarding her own safety. Legal challenges are being heard in the Supreme Court against General Musharraf, and against the recent presidential ordinance granting amnesty to Ms. Bhutto and others charged with corruption in recent years, which could still upset the election process.

General Musharraf has promised to resign his military post if his Oct. 6 election as president in a landslide vote by national and provincial assemblies is confirmed by the Supreme Court, but the hearings could take weeks. The court decided today that the full bench should hear the case, an indication of how seriously it takes the challenges.

The amnesty on corruption charges has caused a storm of criticism in Pakistan, not only from political opponents of Ms. Bhutto. Objections have also come from many ordinary people who are desperate for their leaders to be held accountable before the law.

Ms. Bhutto holds that the corruption charges against her are politically motivated. But if the amnesty is found to be unconstitutional, numerous charges could be resurrected, and she could face jail.

Ms. Bhutto was accompanied at the news conference in Dubai by her husband, Asif Zardari, who served eight years in prison in Pakistan after she was removed from power in 1996, and their two student daughters, Bakhtawar and Aseefa. The former prime minister displayed a bold and passionate stance today that heralded a shakeup in Pakistani politics with her return.

“Many threats have been made from left, right and center to try and intimidate not only me, but the people of Pakistan so they do not go to the airport to greet me,” she said. “Threats have been made by Afghan militants, Arab militants and Red Mosque militants, and I feel very proud that the people and the workers of Pakistan Peoples Party have not been intimidated.”

She added: “I have heard this morning that more than a million people are gathering in Karachi from far-flung areas. People have gathered together and pooled their money, their life savings, to rent a car, to rent a van, to rent a motorcycle, to rent a bus, to hitch a ride to come to Karachi, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”

The government has pressed Ms. Bhutto to delay her return because of the constitutional objections to General Musharraf’s recent election that are being heard in the Supreme Court. But she said she had refused to renege a promise she made to her party workers and to voters to return on Oct. 18. “Once I gave a date, I have to honor it,” she said.

She acknowledged that members of her own party had expressed misgivings over negotiating with General Musharraf, warning that she was walking into a trap. But she said she had to try to work out a transition to democracy. She took credit for persuading General Musharraf to resign his military post and continue as a civilian president, which will almost certainly reduce his control over the country. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she said.

She said her party would continue to try to negotiate with General Musharraf for a transition to democracy, but if that failed, they would take to the streets.

She made a strong appeal for a peaceful transition and prelude to elections.

“I would like to reach out to all the people of Pakistan, that we don’t have to agree on everything but we must agree that we will resolve our differences peacefully and politically,” she said. “We will resolve our differences by going to the people in an election and let the people decide the policies they want,” she said.