The exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said Wednesday that Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, had agreed to resign as army chief as part of a nearly completed deal that would allow him to serve another term as president if he is re-elected and allow her to return to Pakistan to run for prime minister.
“Our understanding is that he will contest elections as a civilian,” Bhutto said in a telephone interview from London, where she has been in negotiations with the general’s emissaries. But a second central question — whether he would run for election with the sitting Parliament voting this fall, or wait until a new and more independent one is formed after elections in January, was “still under discussion,” she said.
The agreement remained a “cliffhanger,” she said. “A lot has gone right, but still there are a couple of issues to be hashed out.”
There was no immediate confirmation from Musharraf, who has suffered a series of blows in recent weeks to his six-month struggle to retain both his military and political leadership posts. But his minister of railways, Sheik Rashid Ahmed, said at a news conference covered by Reuters: “There is no more uniform issue. It has been settled and the president will make an announcement.” Asked later if Musharraf would take off his uniform before standing for re-election, he said, “Maybe.”
A power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Bhutto would have the support of the U.S. and European governments, who see Musharraf as an important ally in fighting terrorism but also want to encourage moderate political forces in Pakistan to counter religious extremists.
The talks gained urgency last week after Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted in a 1999 coup, could return to Pakistan. Like Bhutto, he wields significant power within the country, but he is seen by the Bush administration as less friendly to its interests. He is opposed to the general continuing in power in any capacity and has vowed to oppose his re-election. Sharif could well run for prime minister, and such a rivalry could further roil Pakistani politics.
For the United States, a power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Bhutto would be the best outcome among several bad options. Bush officials want to keep Musharraf in the presidency, because he is viewed as a crucial ally in the fight against terrorism, an American official said. But Musharraf’s plummeting popularity in Pakistan has left American officials worried that he could lose the election if he refuses to share power with Bhutto, or, worse, find himself overthrown in the same kind of army coup that brought him to power.
American officials also worry that Sharif is more critical of the United States than either Bhutto or Musharraf.
Still, foreign policy experts in the United States and administration officials cautioned that it remained unclear whether the power-sharing deal would be enough to stave off further political crises in Pakistan and an eventual ouster of Musharraf.