Pakistani political deal stalls amid opposition

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) –

The government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf still hopes to reach a power-sharing deal with ex-premier Benazir Bhutto. But with negotiations stalled because of fierce opposition from the ruling party, hopes are fading and Musharraf could be drifting toward his political demise.

“It leaves him in a pretty desperate corner,” Ayaz Amir, a former lawmaker and newspaper columnist, said. “I try to figure out what he can do. There are no clear answers.”

In London on Aug. 31, Bhutto said the long-running talks with Musharraf’s camp aimed at gaining her support for the general’s bid to win a new five-year term had reached a standstill.

She declared her intention to return to Pakistan with or without his support.

Some view that as a pressure tactic on Musharraf to agree to her demands, but it also underscored the pitfalls of reaching a deal that must satisfy both leaders and their political supporters, while overcoming myriad legal and constitutional obstacles.

Musharraf and Bhutto will make a final attempt to seal a deal that could keep the general in power, Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said on Dawn News television on Sept. 2.

An envoy for Musharraf will meet Bhutto on the evening of Sept. 2 or on Sept. 3 in Abu Dhabi, Ahmed said.

Bhutto already has served twice as prime minister between 1988 and 1996 – elected governments that collapsed amid allegations of graft.

Bhutto wants the government to drop corruption charges against her and to support a constitutional amendment that would allow her to serve a third term as prime minister.

In return, her party would back another amendment to help Musharraf prolong his eight years in power.

A matchup between the longtime political rivals is an attractive proposition for Western governments, particularly the U.S. and Britain, looking for liberal government that could combat the Talibanization of Pakistan’s border regions where al-Qaida is feared to be regrouping.

It also could offer a political life raft to Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, whose popularity has sunk since he unsuccessfully tried to oust the country’s top judge in March, straining public acceptance of the military’s dominance in Pakistan.

But the deal could see the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party sidelined by the rise of Bhutto’s party, particularly if she gains the premiership.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore’s University of Management Sciences, likened the PML-Q’s support of the deal as “signing their own death warrants” and said the party could disintegrate.

Musharraf appeared to have negotiated its terms over the heads of key members of the ruling coalition who were now balking at supporting the constitutional amendments needed to make it happen, he said.

Such amendments require a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament and would demand comprehensive support from the People’s Party, currently in the parliamentary opposition, and the ruling coalition.

Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani accused Bhutto of making “undemocratic demands” in the talks – including the abolition of the president’s authority to dismiss a government and dissolve parliament.

Sen. Tariq Azim, deputy information minister, said on Sept. 1 that the government is still interested in seeking a deal with Bhutto, but any agreement should also have backing from the PML-Q.