Bhutto calls on Musharraf to resign
The political crisis gripping this country took a surprise turn Tuesday when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto called on President Pervez Musharraf to step down, raising the prospect of more violence between her supporters and government forces, and apparently dashing U.S. hopes for conciliation.
Speaking by telephone to a group of foreign journalists, Bhutto said she would turn her energies from negotiating with Musharraf, who is also chief of Pakistan’s army, to uniting the fragmented opposition parties arrayed against him. She was placed under house arrest for the second time since Musharraf declared a state of emergency Nov. 3.
“Once I am out, I intend to build a broad-based alliance with a one-point agenda for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law,” Bhutto said from Lahore, where she was prevented Tuesday from leading a pro-democracy procession to the capital, Islamabad, by hundreds of police toting assault rifles and thick bamboo rods. “We feel all the political forces should come together.”
That is a tough challenge in Pakistan’s fractious political environment, and even more so now that thousands of opposition party activists have been arrested.
But analysts said the participation of Bhutto and her Pakistani People’s Party might tip the balance.
“The government has pushed all opposition parties to the wall,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, an analyst based in Lahore. “What Musharraf is doing is, he’s saying, ‘If you want to play politics, you have to work within my framework,’ and that will not be acceptable to them. Now they are moving in that direction where they can work together.”
For months, Bhutto had been trying to cut a separate power-sharing deal with Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999. Her repudiation of a potential agreement took many here by surprise.
“I think everybody today, when this statement came out, was taken somewhat by surprise, and very concerned,” said a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Bush administration has backed a power-sharing arrangement as a way to forge an elected civilian government, bringing together Bhutto, a two-time prime minister, and Musharraf, whom the White House considers an “indispensable” ally in the battle against Islamic terrorists. The U.S. regards both leaders as pro-Western moderates.
U.S. officials confirmed that the State Department was dispatching its No. 2, John Negroponte, to Pakistan to press Musharraf to lift the state of emergency, under which the constitution and basic civil liberties have been suspended.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of political tension in Pakistan right now,” White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said. “The most important thing is for the country to return to its democratic path.”
Negroponte’s planned visit, which is expected Friday, is in contrast to the Bush administration’s decision last week to cancel a visit to Pakistan by Eric Edelman, the No. 3 official at the Pentagon. It appeared that the decision to dispatch Negroponte was made before Bhutto called for Musharraf’s resignation.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Negroponte would push Musharraf to assure opposition leaders that parliamentary elections, scheduled for January, would not be conducted with emergency measures still in place.
It “means allowing the media to operate freely and it means allowing people freedom of movement,” Casey said, in a clear reference to Bhutto’s detention. “It means release of those who have been detained for basic political activities there.”
Perino said the White House remained “hopeful that moderate elements would join together.” Asked whether the administration considered Musharraf a moderate, she said Pakistan “has certainly been on a path to democracy” under his rule.
But Bhutto, in her harshest comments yet about a man whom she was trying to negotiate with until very recently, said she could no longer work with a military ruler who had declared de facto martial law, locked up her supporters by the thousands, refused to resign as army chief and reneged on promises to put Pakistan on a democratic path.
Some analysts clung to the belief that Bhutto was posturing and might remain open to a U.S.-backed power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf. But there was no hint of that in her rhetoric.
“I’m calling for Gen. Musharraf to step down, to quit, to leave, to end martial law,” Bhutto said. “I could not serve as prime minister with Gen. Musharraf as president. I wish I could. . . .
“I will not be able to work with Gen. Musharraf because I simply would not be able to believe anything he said to me.”
In response, Musharraf said Bhutto had “no right” to call for him to step down. In an interview with the New York Times, Musharraf defended the imposition of emergency rule, saying it was needed “to ensure elections go in an undisturbed manner.” He said he didn’t know when constitutional law might be restored.
Complaining that Bhutto was being confrontational, he said, “I am afraid this is producing negative vibes, negative optics.”
Bhutto said the final straw that led to her decision to reject cooperation with Musharraf was the “massive crackdown” his regime launched against members of her Pakistan People’s Party overnight Monday. The sweep resulted in the arrest of 7,500 supporters as she prepared to embark on a motor caravan from Lahore to Islamabad to protest Musharraf’s emergency rule, Bhutto said.
“It left my party with the conclusion that he does not really want to do business with us,” she said, after police had barricaded the street with barbed wire and placed her under house arrest for the second time in less than a week. “It made it clear that he was using us as icing on the cake to make sure no one notices the cake was poisoned.”
Analysts said Bhutto might have felt backed into a corner politically. The longer negotiations with Musharraf dragged on, with no tangible or public concessions from him, the more she was tainted by association with a leader many Pakistanis consider a dictator.
Specifically, Bhutto has been unable to get Musharraf to commit himself to a date for stepping down as army chief. A Pakistani law passed several years ago requires that he shed his uniform by Thursday, but Musharraf has said he will do so only when the Supreme Court -- now stacked with his loyalists -- validates his reelection last month as president. A ruling could come this week.
“Until now, he’s the one who had taken all the initiative,” said Samir Puri, a defense analyst for Rand Europe. “Benazir realized she had to seize her own moment.”
In a clash that could presage more confrontations with security forces now that negotiations appear to be off, supporters of Bhutto fired on two police stations in the southern city of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest, prompting a tear-gas attack in response, the Associated Press reported. Two people were injured, including a child.
Rizvi, the Lahore-based analyst, said the coming week would be crucial in gauging opposition parties’ ability to bring supporters and ordinary Pakistanis onto the streets to protest Musharraf’s emergency decree. Demonstrations in the first few days of emergency rule drew mostly lawyers angry over Musharraf’s manipulation of the judiciary, but tapered off after mass arrests.
If protesters “come out in the next five to seven days, then you’ll have an acute crisis in Pakistan,” Rizvi said. “Musharraf will have no choice but to impose more restrictions on the country.”
Tariq Azim, the minister of state for information, brushed off Bhutto’s demand that Musharraf step down.
“If everybody who has just been elected is called on to resign, there won’t be any leaders left in the world,” he said. “There is no basis for such an unrealistic proposal.”
He added that he did not think talks with Bhutto had definitively ended. “We keep the door open always,” he said.
Analysts said the breach between Musharraf and Bhutto was serious, but that even her categorical statements Tuesday did not necessarily rule out the possibility of a resumption of talks.
“Never say never,” said Gareth Price, an expert on Pakistan at Chatham House, a foreign policy think tank in London. “Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have talked to each other, and back in ’94 they couldn’t stand each other. The point is that these people want to be in power.”
Sharif is another former prime minister and a longtime foe of Bhutto, who had sworn never to deal with him. Last weekend, he wrote to her from exile in Saudi Arabia to discuss a rapprochement between their parties on the basis of an anti-Musharraf platform.
“I was going to respond to that letter when I got arrested,” Bhutto said dryly.
She is under a seven-day detention order in Lahore, which the government said was necessary to stop her rally from taking place because of what it said were credible threats of suicide bombers.
Upon her return from self-imposed exile last month, a suicide attack on her slow-moving convoy from Karachi airport killed at least 140 people.
She said she chose to stay in Lahore at a party member’s home that would be easy to secure, but that the decision backfired when police turned it into a virtual prison. “Now we are seeing it’s playing to Gen. Musharraf’s advantage, who should be hunting Osama bin Laden but who instead is hunting me,” Bhutto said.
Once she is free to move again, Bhutto may be counting on international pressure to protect her from more repressive measures by the military regime.
“Overt moves against her would play very badly in Washington and London,” Puri, of Rand, said. “But if they let her appear in public, conduct rallies, there is of course the possibility of an assassination.”
The motorcade to Islamabad, through Pakistan’s most populous and politically important province, Punjab, began without her. But authorities reportedly stopped the convoy 60 miles outside Lahore and arrested hundreds of party activists.
Bhutto reiterated Tuesday that her party would most likely boycott the parliamentary elections Musharraf has said will be held in early January. She said Musharraf had not fulfilled conditions for free and fair balloting, including ending emergency rule, naming an unbiased election commission and reining in corrupt local party bosses.
“He keeps trying to bide time. He keeps trying to break momentum,” Bhutto said. “Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country. We cannot afford this kind of chaos and instability.”
Times staff writers Laura King in Islamabad and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.