Beleaguered Musharraf forced to make overtures to Bhutto

Kashif Khan

Hemmed in by fundamentalist Muslim foes, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is on the verge of clinching a deal with former premier Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party, whom he has repeatedly accused of being corrupt and ineffective.

Analysts believe that as part of a deal, General Musharraf would have to concede the exiled Bhutto's long-term demands for withdrawal of corruption references as well as her safe passage to Pakistan and holding fresh elections under an independent Election Commission.

In return, she would be required to endorse General Musharraf's policies and support him for the presidency beyond 2007, when his present term ends.

Underlining the budding reconciliation between two political foes, General Musharraf has recently described Bhutto's party as a moderate force and has asked it to help him curb extremism.

Federal Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said authorities were in constant contact with Bhutto and back-channel negotiations for a possible agreement were taking place.

Bhutto, whose government was dismissed in 1996 on corruption charges, has been living in exile in Britain and the United Arab Emirates.

Political observers believe the apparent change of heart on the part of the president exposes the superficiality of the entire democratic structure that he has tried to erect over the past five years.

'It seems the presidency has come to the conclusion that the ruling coalition of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) has been unable to muster enough political support to ensure the sustainability of the political order initiated by General Musharraf in 2002,' said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading Islamabad political analyst.

'It is now looking beyond the PML to cope with the increased participatory pressure'.

It is believed the worsening domestic situation in Pakistan, particularly the rising violence in Baluchistan, has underlined the need for General Musharraf to extend the support base for his policies by engaging the mainstream political parties.

General Musharraf has increasingly been on the back foot since the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a conglomerate of leading Islamic parties, withdrew its support in December after he failed to keep a promise to quit as army chief.