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Democracy only antidote to Pak’s Talibanisation, says Benazir
PPP leader firm on taking up challenges back home
Exclusive interview with The Tribune’s Washington correspondent Ashish Kumar Sen

Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto is determined to end her exile for nearly a decade and return to Pakistan to participate in elections this year, regardless of whether she gets President Pervez Musharraf's approval.

Forced to flee Pakistan because of corruption charges against her, the former Pakistani prime minister denies she is now working on a deal with Gen. Musharraf to facilitate her return. But, by her own admission, returning without an “understanding” with Gen. Musharraf means running the risk of arrest. That’s a risk she’s willing to take.

“I plan to take on the challenges knowing my life is dedicated to the restoration of democracy,” Bhutto said in an exclusive interview with The Tribune from Dubai.

Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group says the return of exiled democrats like Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, would marginalize the Islamist parties in Pakistan. “However, any power-sharing agreements with the military that impede a democratic transition would prove counter-productive,” Dr Ahmed said from her office in Islamabad.

Gen. Musharraf is expected to seek election to another five-year term as president this year. Opposition politicians want him to give up his post as army chief before he runs.

Marvin Weinbaum at the Middle East Institute in Washington thinks a deal just to take care of Bhutto's personal issues would not only lack credibility with the politically conscious electorate but would alienate members of her own party. “To be credible, she needs to force early, open elections,” he said, adding, “In exchange for Musharraf being re-elected president by the new parliament, he must shed his army post. The new parliament can presumably get around the constitutional provision that would force him to wait two years after taking off the uniform to be elected.”

But the general has other problems on his plate. His decision to fire the country's top judge has pitted him against an angry judiciary.

Bhutto said the removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Choudhury on March 9 “creates the perception that instead of building a democracy, the current regime has been dismantling liberal and secular institutions in a country that is already threatened by Islamic extremism”.

Forced to spend several years away from her country and apart from her husband, Bhutto has learnt an important lesson: learn to value living in the present. Dogged by what she terms “fallacious corruption charges,” Bhutto, who at 35 became the first woman to lead an Islamic nation, has lived in exile in since 1996.

After Musharraf seized power from Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999, he went after the two former prime ministers in a much-publicised effort to rid Pakistan of corruption. Bhutto fled to Britain and then eventually to Dubai; Sharif took refuge in Saudi Arabia, before moving to London.

But Bhutto’s misfortunes are frequently blamed on her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who spent eight years in a Pakistani jail on charges ranging from corruption to murder. Zardari, who was released in 2004 when a judge said the cases were all false, now lives in New York. Unwavering in her loyalty to her husband, Bhutto said, “He was tortured and nearly died. I raised small children on my own. My opponents subsidized their political vendetta against me with state funds.”

In exile, she lives by Dale Carnegie's book on how to avoid anxiety and focus on the present, and has immersed herself in the company of new friends. “I appreciated the opportunity to raise my children, look after my mother [Nusrat Bhutto] who suffers from a form of Alzheimer's and the opportunity to speak up for moderate Muslims following the terror attacks on the World Trade Center as well as on women’s rights,” she said. She has also focused her efforts on leading her Pakistan Peoples Party via e-mail.

Compelled by circumstances, Bhutto is open to a political alliance with her former rival. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the PPP have formed an Alliance for Restoration of Democracy with a charter that details reforms they intend to enact when elected to office.

Bhutto thinks the elections this year could turn out to be “a last chance to save a moderate Pakistan from the creeping Talibanisation that is taking place.” She says the restoration of democracy through free, fair, transparent and internationally supervised elections is the only way to return Pakistan to civilisation and marginalise the extremists. “A democratic Pakistan, free from the yoke of military dictatorship, would cease to be the breeding ground for international terrorism. That is the only long-term solution,” she contended.

Noting that public opinion in Pakistan is “negative” toward the U.S., Mr. Weinbaum said, “Whatever Benazir says now, she may find it impossible to mobilise the public to back a crackdown on the religious elements or that the army would go along.”

Bhutto blames Washington for the growing anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. “Democratic development in Pakistan has rarely been a priority for the U.S. Ordinary Pakistanis feel alienated and therefore we see rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan,” she said. Ultimately, she added, “The U.S. government must support democracy and give democracy time to flourish.”



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