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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 November 2007, 16:03 GMT
Is Musharraf-Bhutto conflict all it seems?
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Benazir Bhutto addressing supporters outside her home in Islamabad 9-11-07
Some observers say the political falling-out is a tactical move

Pakistan's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, has finally set a date for national elections, meeting a key demand of opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto.

But he has stopped short of putting a time-limit on emergency rule, which was invoked on 3 November, or giving a date for his retirement as army chief.

Ms Bhutto has been urging Gen Musharraf to make a clear stand on both, or face street protests.

The two leaders have been locked in talks for several months on how to get to what Gen Musharraf has described as "full democracy".

But his move to impose the emergency has caused an ostensible falling-out between the two, both considered crucial by the West to Pakistan's fight against Islamist extremism.

Battles

On Friday, the government briefly placed Ms Bhutto under house arrest in Islamabad, the country's capital, to prevent her from addressing a public meeting in nearby Rawalpindi.

President Pervez Musharraf
Gen Musharraf imposed emergency rule after months of unrest

The police also foiled her subsequent attempt to meet the country's "deposed" top judge, Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.

The question the people are now asking is, is this falling-out quite what it seems?

More cynical observers think Friday's dramas in Islamabad and elsewhere are an exercise in mutual face-saving, a clandestine understanding that is meant to benefit both.

According to these observers, the masses in Pakistan are not yet ready to come out in full support of political leaders against a government bent on preventing street protests.

This, they say, was known to Ms Bhutto when she called Friday's public meeting in Rawalpindi.

Without imposing emergency rule, the general appeared to have no way of getting rid of an increasingly independent court

Her subsequent detention has helped preserve the "mythical name" of the Bhuttos in Pakistan.

And, the cynics say, has also negated the impression that she, a self-declared champion of democracy, is in cahoots with Gen Musharraf, a military dictator who came to power by deposing an elected government.

As for Gen Musharraf, a mock conflict with Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) affords him time to get the revamped Supreme Court to endorse the legality of his re-election as president.

Nine judges were sacked and replaced after they refused to endorse Gen Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency, declaring it unconstitutional.

Without imposing emergency rule, the general appeared to have no way of getting rid of an increasingly independent court that was hearing, and possibly planning to overturn, the legality of his new term as president.

Observers say Gen Musharraf will not prolong the emergency rule because of pressure he is under from Western powers that want him to quit the army and hold early parliamentary elections.

'Measured confrontation'

But another set of observers believe the conflict is genuine, and arises out of Gen Musharraf's tactics - the imposition of emergency rule and a media blackout - which Ms Bhutto considers detrimental to her interests.

A supporter of Benazir Bhutto is taken away by police in Islamabad (9 November)
PPP supporters were rounded up by police in Islamabad on Friday

These observers point out that in the past Ms Bhutto has managed to hold larger public gatherings under more oppressive regimes, and can still do that.

But her plan this time appears to be one of "measured confrontation".

According to these observers, while another opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, set himself on a collision course with the Musharraf regime and was exiled for a second time, Ms Bhutto adopted the course of dialogue.

This paved the way for her trouble-free return to the country after eight years of self-imposed exile.

Now that she is secure in her base, she can step up pressure on the regime to make further concessions to her party, they argue.

Alternatively, she can use the threat of public demonstrations as an instrument that could upset the applecart for the regime, with serious consequences for Gen Musharraf.

No leadership

On Friday, small-scale but persistent and widespread protests broke out in Rawalpindi, Islamabad and large parts of Ms Bhutto's native Sindh province over her detention.

But it was obvious that her PPP made no attempt to organise the protesters or provide them with leadership.

Lawyers protest in Islamabad
Lawyers led early anti-emergency rule protests in Islamabad

Ms Bhutto has now arrived in Lahore, from where she is scheduled to lead a "long march" to Islamabad on 13 November.

And as she ups the ante, she has also made a conscious effort to draw another popular party of the Punjab - former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's PMLN - into her anti-government campaign.

On Saturday, Ms Bhutto for the first time made a categorical statement on the chief justice, saying he was still the top judge.

The statement was apparently made in response to a PMLN demand that she make her position on the issue of the sacked judges clear.

Ms Bhutto is clearly trying to force Gen Musharraf to concede to her demands one by one.

Ms Bhutto may be wary of allowing these protests to turn into a wider movement aimed at pulling down the entire edifice of Gen Musharraf's regime

Her foremost consideration now is the elections, and she has chosen Punjab as her main battlefield.

With the PMLN and other opposition groups in tow, she hopes to lead a huge procession from Lahore to Islamabad, right across the main support base of the PMLQ, Gen Musharraf's only real political ally.

If the PMLQ-led Punjab government arrests her, she gains in terms of a sympathy vote in Sindh and the southern districts of Punjab.

However, she may be wary of allowing these protests to turn into a wider movement aimed at pulling down the entire edifice of Gen Musharraf's regime - an aim dear to lawyers, the rights groups and opposition parties like the PMLN.

This, observers say, would divert attention from the threat of militancy and regional instability - something Ms Bhutto will have to contend with if she becomes prime minister, and for which she will need Gen Musharraf and a willing army.



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