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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 November 2007, 16:52 GMT
Has Bhutto broken with Musharraf?
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Bhutto supporters in Lahore, 13 November 2007
Bhutto has yet to call her party supporters out in earnest
Pakistan's former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, appears to be on a collision course with the military-led government of Gen Pervez Musharraf.

On Monday, she said her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) had broken off contacts with Gen Musharraf and there was no likelihood of talks resuming in future.

She now says she can no longer see herself "serving with President Musharraf".

This is a significant departure from her earlier policy of engaging in talks with Gen Musharraf to facilitate the transition to democracy and reinvigorate the country's fight against militancy.

But many analysts are still sceptical over whether the break between the two leaders is final.

Fast-changing situation

Regardless of this, some idea of Ms Bhutto's current strategy can be gained from the developments since she ended her eight-year long self-imposed exile and returned to Pakistan last month.

Analysts believe Ms Bhutto is likely to employ all means she can muster to defend her electoral interests in the country

To begin with, she came home following a deal with the government which was brokered by the US and the UK to provide Gen Musharraf with credible political support within a constitutional framework.

The most essential part of that deal was free and fair elections - the PPP's greatest prize given that Pakistan's military establishment has traditionally mistrusted its political independence.

Understandably, Ms Bhutto's first target was Gen Musharraf's current political ally, the ruling PML-Q party, which has its base in Punjab province.

Her pre-emergency rule plan to hold a public meeting in the city of Rawalpindi in Punjab on 9 November was apparently meant to strike at the heart of the PML-Q's support base.

Protest against Musharraf
Gen Musharraf is under pressure to end the emergency before elections

But things have changed fast since then.

It is widely known that the PML-Q opposes any electoral concession to Ms Bhutto or her exiled rival and fellow former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

For his part, Gen Musharraf has been oscillating between the prospects of a reduced role in a democratic set-up possibly run by the PPP, or retaining maximum power with the support of the pliant PML-Q.

When he imposed the emergency on 3 November, to the PPP mind he appeared to have made a choice.

It meant "stage-managed" elections and a subsequent indemnity for Gen Musharraf's actions through another constitutional amendment by the next parliament before the emergency could be lifted.

Ms Bhutto has subsequently accused Gen Musharraf of also reneging on a promise he made to her that he would contest the presidential election only after quitting as army chief.

Her subsequent demands for a time-frame for the lifting of the state of emergency and Gen Musharraf's quitting as army chief have remained unmet, while she has been twice put under house arrest to prevent her from conducting her political campaign.

Ways forward

As things stand, she could be preparing to head in either of two directions.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Benazir talks about democracy. What happened to democracy in the PPP?
Iqbal, Lahore

The first direction follows the original roadmap for democracy, including free and fair elections and a constitutional arrangement which she had earlier indicated she would be negotiating with Gen Musharraf.

This arrangement presupposes Gen Musharraf's early retirement from the army and a lifting of the emergency ahead of elections, which he says will be held before 9 January.

It also presupposes a quick trial of Gen Musharraf's eligibility as president by the new Supreme Court, without which he is not ready to quit the army.

There is no way of knowing whether such an arrangement has been choreographed, with both Ms Bhutto and Gen Musharraf only playing to the galleries to earn credibility before they do what has been agreed.

The other course is one of increased confrontation, with a fundamental shift in Ms Bhutto's strategy towards combating militancy, the larger aim of her earlier dialogue with Gen Musharraf.

The Western powers have two options in this situation.

First, they can put pressure on Gen Musharraf to revert to the original roadmap as early as possible and create conditions for a fully competitive parliamentary election in January.

This way they can keep all the players focused on Pakistan's war against al-Qaeda and the Taleban, besides helping the country change the paradigm of relations with Afghanistan and India.

Second, they can helplessly watch polarisation within Pakistan get worse, possibly leading to a coup or regime change.

Such a situation would throw up all sorts of possibilities, including one in which the West's role in evolving a national consensus on the issue of militancy may either become limited, or disappear altogether.

Analysts believe Ms Bhutto is likely to employ all means she can muster to defend her electoral interests in the country.

She is perhaps the only opposition leader in Pakistan who would be loathe to leave the matter of al-Qaeda and the Taleban to the country's mostly conservative opposition politicians.



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