/ 14 November 2007

Bhutto tries to unite Pakistani opposition

Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto is trying to forge an alliance with Islamists and other opposition parties to launch a campaign to force military president Pervez Musharraf from power.

United States ally Musharraf, who took power in 1999 coup, plunged the nuclear-armed country into crisis on November 3 when he declared emergency rule, suspended the Constitution and rounded up thousands of opponents.

Bhutto had been in power-sharing talks with Musharraf for months and returned to Pakistan from eight years of self-imposed exile last month, aiming to work with him on a transition to civilian rule.

But outraged by his crackdown on her supporters and her house arrest, Bhutto said on Tuesday talks were over and for the first time called on him to step down as president as well as army chief.

She also got on the phone to bitter old rivals including Qazi Hussain Ahmed, head of an alliance of Islamist parties, and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan to urge a ”coalition of interests”, party officials said on Wednesday.

”She’s trying to unite all political parties on a minimum agenda to return the country to true democracy,” Latif Khosa, a senator and aide to Bhutto, told Reuters by telephone from the eastern city of Lahore.

”The minimum agenda is the ouster of General Musharraf and formation of a neutral government of national consensus to organise free and fair elections.”

Facing growing pressure from allies and rivals to put the country back on a path to democracy, Musharraf said on the weekend general elections would be held by January 9. But he did not say when the Constitution would be restored or emergency lifted.

He said the state of emergency would ensure a fair vote.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who last week warned against cutting aid to an ”indispensable” security ally, is due in Pakistan late this week to urge Musharraf to lift the emergency.

But Musharraf on Tuesday rejected a similar call from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

”I totally disagree with her,” he told the New York Times. ”The emergency is to ensure elections go in an undisturbed manner.”

He also said Bhutto had no right to demand his resignation.


Police have used batons and teargas to break up small protests in various parts of the country since the emergency was declared but there has been no major violence.

Police in Lahore stifled a planned procession by Bhutto on Tuesday, placing her under house arrest behind coils of barded wire and barricades and bundling off cluster of supporters who gathered to chant slogans.

Scores of students in Lahore, Pakistan’s political nerve centre and capital of its most prosperous province, protested on Wednesday. A protest has been called in Islamabad for 10.30am GMT.

Bhutto, who has been detained in Khosa’s house in Lahore, has also spoken to the aides of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, ousted by Musharraf in 1999, Khosa said.

”I hope you will hear good news soon,” he said.

Bhutto said on Tuesday her party might boycott the election.

Analysts say Bhutto’s move has isolated the embattled president who is backed by a disparate band of politicians expected to do badly in the polls.

”Bhutto’s announcement is a major setback,” said Talat Masood, a former general and a political analyst said. ”The entire political spectrum is united to oppose him.”

”He is becoming more and more isolated … such a situation is putting the army in a very awkward position,” he said.

Many Pakistanis are gloomy about prospects and some are disillusioned with old politicians.

”Business is going down, the situation is volatile and people feel insecure … Free and impartial elections are the only solution,” said Abbas Syed (50) who runs an IT import-export business in Lahore.

But he said he did not support two-time prime minister Bhutto: ”We need somebody new.” – Reuters