Bhutto hears the call to save Pakistan


PAKISTAN:The once and perhaps future prime minister talks to Mary Fitzgerald, Foreign Affairs Correspondent, about her plans to return to her country

Everywhere Benazir Bhutto goes these days, the question is the same: "'When are you going back?' they ask me. The time has come," she says, sitting in the living room of her London home.

Rumours that Pakistan's self-exiled former prime minister may be poised for a comeback have swirled around since late last year, taking on greater urgency as President Pervez Musharraf lurches from one controversy to the next in what has proved his worst crisis since seizing power in a bloodless military coup eight years ago.

A return could be tricky however. In 1999 Bhutto fled her homeland in disgrace, hounded by allegations of corruption, which she denied. Many of those charges still stand and Bhutto (54) runs the risk of arrest if she sets foot in Pakistan.

Nevertheless, the former premier intends to return by December, she told The Irish Times. "I plan to go back irrespective of how difficult the circumstances are," she said. "My first preference is that there can be some kind of dialogue that will lead to my safe return to Pakistan, but in the event that fails, I still intend to go back. Pakistan is facing a very great crisis and this may be one of the last opportunities to try to save the country from a militant takeover. I feel I must go back."

Watching from exile as Pakistan chafes under military rule and finds itself buckling under growing extremism, Bhutto has sought to cast herself as something of a national saviour, the leader who can stem militancy and put the country back on the path to democracy.

Born into one of Pakistan's wealthiest dynasties, she studied at Oxford and Harvard before becoming, at the age of 35, the first woman to head a modern Muslim state. Her father, a deposed prime minister, was executed. Her two brothers were killed. She, her mother and her husband have all spent time in prison. As she puts it in the opening words of her autobiography: "I didn't choose this life; it chose me."

Despite Musharraf repeatedly insisting that Bhutto will not be allowed contest Pakistan's forthcoming elections, it has been an open secret for some months that both camps have been trying to hammer out terms under which she might return and agree on a power-sharing deal.

As leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP) - arguably the largest party with a countrywide following - Bhutto may well be in a position to bail Musharraf out of his current troubles, bringing a veneer of democracy, popular support and legitimacy to his flailing administration.

But Bhutto, who has served as prime minister twice, has presented a lengthy wish-list in return. To facilitate her comeback she wants all outstanding corruption charges quashed, and she wants a law banning individuals from serving more than two terms as prime minister rescinded. Bhutto also demands that the balance of power between parliament and the president be restored and she wants Musharraf, her former chief of military operations, to give up his role as army chief - something he appears reluctant to do.

Talks between the two camps, she told The Irish Times, have now struck a rut. "Both sides expressed a desire to facilitate a return to democracy and both sides agree that in order to combat militancy and extremism it is important for the moderate forces to work together. But despite both sides being agreed on the objective and the nature of Pakistan's future direction, there is still a logjam."

The issue at stake, she says, concerns apparent discrepancies in the electoral register. Bhutto and her party claim some 30 million voters have been disenfranchised in a move to rig the elections in the ruling party's favour.

"We are in this dialogue to facilitate the restoration of democracy and it is now floundering on the issue of the electoral lists. People are discussing how to overcome this and I hope we can, but I think it would be premature to say that any settlement has been reached," she said.

Is Bhutto worried that she may have to compromise her democratic ideals in order to forge a deal with a man she has spent the last eight years decrying as a dictator? "I won't compromise on a fair election," she says. "If there isn't a fair election and I'm offered a few ministries to be the gloss on an establishment-dominated government then that is something that I personally would not like to be part of We have our principles and we will try to facilitate the restoration of democracy. If we fail, we will sit in the opposition and try again. We will not compromise on our core political beliefs."

"I can't talk for the regime. I can't say whether they really want a facilitating of democracy or not. That is for them to prove."

A deal with Musharraf could prove a gamble on her party's political fortunes. Would it damage the PPP's credibility? "If we were joining a military regime, yes. If we gave up our principles then it would certainly be devastating but we're not doing a deal for the continuation of military-dominated politics. We're going to take the military out of politics."

Pakistan's problems have been exacerbated by eight years of military rule, Bhutto says, noting that more hardline religious groupings have won parliamentary seats and radical elements have become stronger. "Creeping Talibanisation" is the expression she coined to describe the trend.

The number of religious seminaries run by militants has mushroomed, she adds, and government policy in dealing with pro-Taliban and al- Qaeda-linked groups has led to a collapse of authority in certain areas of Pakistan. "The longer there is dictatorship, the greater the threat from extremists will become, because dictatorship fuels the extremist movements in Pakistan," she said.

Conceding that her government made a mistake in recognising the Taliban in the 1990s, Bhutto now argues in favour of a more muscular approach to fight militants, and she wants seminaries linked to them shut down. She applauded the recent army storming of a radical pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad, saying the operation had "drawn a line in the sand" and ended a "policy of appeasement".

For all her talk of rescuing Pakistan from the brink, however, Bhutto remains a deeply divisive figure in her homeland. While some hail her as a liberal hero with a progressive vision for the country, others remember the corruption that tainted her previous terms in office and suspect she is driven more by political opportunism than anything else.

A recent poll which showed the PPP to be Pakistan's most popular party perhaps says more about the country's dearth of viable opposition leaders than it does about Bhutto's individual popularity. Bhutto herself is dismissive of suggestions she is a polarising figure. "I have my critics but I don't see myself like that. Instead I see myself as a leader under whose tenure Pakistan was making great strides forward - there was peace in the land and investment flowing in.

"My vision is of a Pakistan at peace with its neighbours and itself, and free of the threat of terrorism. This can happen if we have uninterrupted democracy, but if we have more of what we have had in the last few years, there is no doubt the militants will become even stronger. What we face is a battle for the soul of Pakistan. It really is the last chance for the country."