In Pakistan, can Bhutto distance herself from Musharraf?

As the former prime minister tries to unify the opposition to Pakistan's president, many wonder if her past dealings with him will make her unpopular.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's long political balancing act between President Pervez Musharraf and his political opposition seems to have finally come to an end, observers here say, despite Washington's continuing effort to resuscitate a deal between the two leaders.

But even as Ms. Bhutto appears to throw herself into convening a unified opposition movement against President Musharraf, her prolonged negotiations to reach a powersharing agreement with him have earned her the distrust and skepticism of many other leaders in the opposition ranks.

In the same way, Washington's repeated urging for Musharraf and Bhutto to reconcile may have scuttled the former prime minister's political viability by causing her to appear, like Musharraf, to be an intimate of Washington.

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"The deal" between Pervez Musharraf and Bhutto "is redundant," says Hassan Askari Rizvi, a political consultant. "Any politician who sits with Musharraf, their political career is over."

After a visit last weekend by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte in which he articulated Washington's reluctant but continued support for Musharraf, Bhutto is faced with a stark choice between a path to potential power that either runs through power politics or popular politics.

"She may feel the advantage lies with Musharraf" after America's newest diplomatic gesture, says Shafqat Mahmood, a political analyst. "But as far as public opinion goes, she would lose enormous popular support," by joining ranks with him.

With the country under effective martial law, and as Taliban-inspired militants wage war against the Pakistani Army in the region bordering Afghanistan, top US envoy Mr. Negroponte suggested "reconciliation between political moderates" would be "the most constructive way forward" to maintain Musharraf as an ally in the war on terror.

But in separate conversations, both Musharraf and Bhutto conveyed to Negroponte that there was little space for negotiations left.

While Bhutto, Mr. Rizvi says, was able to bounce back from her initial contacts with Musharraf earlier this year, his declaration of a state of emergency this month has substantially raised the stakes.

"The substance of Negroponte's visit seems to be that, even though the US disagrees with the imposition of emergency [rule], they are still willing to work with him," says Rizvi. Negroponte's attempts to revive Bhutto-Musharraf talks, he says "is totally out of step with the ground reality in the country."

Bhutto's friends in opposing places

Bhutto has spent the past week networking with all elements of Musharraf's opposition – political parties of all ideological stripes, civil society groups, lawyers, and students – in the hopes of leading a strong alternative bloc.

Such a unified political force could be presented to her sympathizers in the West, who are now being forced to consider a post-Musharraf Pakistan as an alternative to the military ruler.

In her own press conference in Lahore, after her three-day house arrest ended, Bhutto made her new stance clear. She called Musharraf "an obstacle to democracy" and termed a new interim government appointed by the president to oversee the election period "unacceptable" and "biased." She threatened to boycott general elections scheduled for January.

Last week, Bhutto had demanded that Musharraf resign from the Army and the government – a far cry from her stance a month ago, when she wished to work with the general to restore democracy in the country.

Bhutto also used her time under house arrest to reach out to estranged opposition leaders, including her sometime rival former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia. She has also begun working with Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the leader of the Islamist political party Jamat-e-Islami.

In an apparent attempt to win back her estranged secular liberal vote bank, Bhutto also met with Asma Jehangir, a leading human rights lawyer active in the lawyers' street movement against Musharraf and chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Careful calculations

Bhutto's decision to start a campaign against Musharraf, analysts say, could be the result of some hard calculations, including weighing how much power Musharraf will truly wield if he does quit the Army as promised and begin his second term as a civilian president.

Bhutto may also be banking on support from Washington– if the US is presented with a choice between the military leader and her.

"If Benazir puts her foot down now, the US might just decide that their plans to keep Pervez Musharraf in place are scuttled," says Mr. Mahmood.

For his part, Musharraf has appeared, for now, to have thrown all his chips back with his own loyalist party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.

A newspaper quoted Musharraf telling party loyalists that "I am your team, and you are mine."

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