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Analysis: Pakistan ruling party against Bhutto deal, media sees foreign hands

BBC Monitoring

Analysis by Steve Metcalf of BBC Monitoring on 13 September

Although the main story of the week in Pakistan has been the blocked attempt by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to return from exile, two other equally important issues have been getting closer to a resolution.

One is an impending announcement about President Musharraf's re-election bid, the other the long-running negotiations between Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto over her return from exile.

The talks between Bhutto and Musharraf are being fiercely opposed by the current ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, and there is a widespread belief in the media that Pakistan's future is being settled outside the country. PML-Q Secretary General Mushahid Hussain Sayed said on Geo News TV on 6 September that decisions about the next prime minister should not be made in the "drawing rooms of London and Dubai".

Election schedule

Pakistan's chief election commissioner announced on 11 September that a schedule for the country's presidential election would be announced "within a few days". In his statement, reported by the APP news agency, he said that the election would be held "in accordance with the provisions of the constitution". This means the election should take place between 60 and 30 days before the expiry of President Musharraf's term on 15 November.

The National Assembly's term runs out in October, after which a general election has to be held within 60 days (or 90 days if it is dissolved before the end of its term).

The PML-Q has expressed support for Musharraf's re-election. However, behind the scenes it is bitterly divided, suffering from defections, and fearful that it will be the loser from a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is generally believed to have the largest popular support. Commentators on Pakistani affairs say that a Musharraf-Bhutto deal would effectively mean a power-sharing arrangement between the two that would see the PML-Q marginalized.

PML-Q opposition

A report in The Nation on 7 September said that some leading ministers and PML-Q members had "strongly resisted the deal process" at a meeting with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and party leader Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. The report said the party leadership was trying to block Bhutto's return "at all costs" because a deal would "totally shatter the ruling alliance".

The Islam daily reported on 7 September that 23 out of 26 federal ministers had expressed their reservations about talks with the PPP. The report said that such a large degree of opposition was "no ordinary development" and that if the deal with Bhutto went ahead, there could be a "mass exodus" from the ranks of the PML-Q.

The Nation said that one plan being considered was an early dissolution of the National Assembly. This would provide President Musharraf an extra three to four months before his re-election because there would be no electoral college available to! make the appointment.

However, Dawn reported on 7 September that this idea had been ruled out. It said that a "top-level" meeting at the presidency, at which Shaukat Aziz and Shujaat Hussain were among those present, had decided that Musharraf would seek re-election "in uniform" between 15 September and 15 October.

(Government officials and the media have regularly been referring to this period as being from 15 September to 15 October. However, as a report in The Nation pointed out on 7 September, the exact timeframe is between 17 September and 16 October.)

Sticking points

A meeting of the PML-Q's central working committee on 8 September gave its support for Musharraf's re-election, both Dawn and the Daily Times reported. However the meeting unanimously rejected making any deal with Bhutto.

The party is opposed to three aspects of the deal in particular. They are: removal of the ban on a prime minister serving more than two terms of office (which both Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have done); repeal of Article 58 (2b) of the constitution, which gives the president special powers to dissolve parliament; and an interim administration to oversee elections.

PML-Q president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain reiterated the party's position in an interview with ARY One World TV on 11 September, the state-run APP news agency reported.

In an interview with the Indian news channel CNN-IBN broadcast on 12 September, Bhutto said of her discussions with Musharraf: "We are running out of time as elections ar! e coming up but the window is not completely shut." She denied that she was under US pressure to reach an agreement, but admitted that Musharraf was a "key ally to the US in the war against terrorism".

Foreign intervention

Despite Bhutto's denial, there is a widespread perception in the Pakistani media that the United States is pushing hard for an agreement between her and Musharraf. A report in Dawn on 8 September said that this perception had been strengthened by the unannounced arrival in Islamabad of US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher.

In its report on Boucher's "surprise" visit, The News quoted an unnamed official as saying that Boucher had been sent to Pakistan because of the Bush administration's "strong desire" for an early finalization of the Musharraf-Bhutto deal.

Boucher's presence in Islamabad coincided with the visit of two other foreign envoys. Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin and Lebanese politician Saad Hariri arrived in advance of Nawaz Sharif's planned return on 10 September. During their visit they held a televised news conference at which they urged Sharif not to return, pointing out that he had signed an agreement in 2000 to remain in exile for 10 years.

In an editorial about the news conference on 9 September, leading English-language newspaper Dawn said that it had been "a very embarrassing, if not mortifying, spectacle". The paper said the Saudi and Lebanese "intervention" highlighted the "abject failure" of the country's leaders to manage its problems properly.

In an article in The News on 12 September, headlined "Local actors, foreign scripts", Shireen Mazari also complained of the lack of proper leadership. "It seems as though deals brokered from outside are going to be our fate," she said, adding that the US was "attempting to engineer the future democratic dispensation within Pakistan, aided and abetted by its faithful ally, Britain".

Source: BBC Monitoring research 13 Sep 07

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