To the cheers of supporters who set off celebratory firecrackers and flung pink flower petals, the party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto announced Friday that she planned to return to her homeland Oct. 18.
But it was not yet known whether Bhutto, who has been in self-imposed exile in London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for nearly nine years, would return as nominal ally or nettlesome rival of President Pervez Musharraf -- and whether she might face jail on still-pending corruption charges.
Bhutto, 54, has been in power-sharing talks for months with the beleaguered Musharraf. Both sides said at various points that the deal was nearly sealed, but an accord has proved elusive.
The former prime minister’s prospective homecoming is the latest wild card in a Pakistani political scene that has seen more turmoil with each passing day.
It represents a major gamble on the part of Bhutto, a charismatic, controversial leader whose Pakistan People’s Party is expected to perform strongly in parliamentary elections to be held within four months.
The Bush administration hopes that a deal between Bhutto and Musharraf, an army general who seized power in a bloodless coup eight years ago, will pave the way for a smooth transition toward democratic rule. Without it, any number of chaotic scenarios could unfold -- including Musharraf declaring emergency rule or, more drastically, martial law.
Either step would give Musharraf, who is both head of state and chief of the military, sweeping powers to curtail civil liberties, and would almost certainly lead to the postponement or cancellation of the elections.
The announcement of Bhutto’s impending return came four days after the government deported another long-exiled rival of the president, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf overthrew in 1999.
Sharif attempted to return home after Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that he could do so. But he was on the ground for less than four hours before being hustled onto a plane and flown to Saudi Arabia, where he had spent most of his exile under an agreement between Saudi officials and the Pakistani government.
Officials with Bhutto’s party say she will return home regardless of whether she strikes a power-sharing deal with Musharraf.
The government said Bhutto was free to come back, but that the charges against her remain active.
“The law will take its course,” Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said.
Senior aides to Musharraf have ruled out deportation because Bhutto’s exile was self-imposed.
Asked whether there was concern about how Bhutto would be treated by Musharraf’s government on her arrival, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was carefully neutral, saying it was “a matter for the Pakistanis to deal with.”
Bhutto’s timing would put her arrival just after the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which began here Friday, and the three-day Eid festival that marks its completion.
Before then, however, Musharraf is likely to attempt a controversial move: getting voted to another term as president by the outgoing national and provincial assemblies while retaining his role as military chief. His aides have said he would do so before Oct. 15.
That plan could be derailed by the Supreme Court, which has demonstrated a newfound independence in recent months, magnified after Musharraf tried and failed to fire Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
Next week, the court is to hear a challenge to Musharraf’s right to seek another term while he is still the army chief of staff, a post he has held since before the coup.
Bhutto’s homecoming is to be in Karachi, the country’s largest city and the main power base of the Bhutto dynasty. Her father, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown and then executed in 1979 by another military ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq.
Under the broad outlines of any deal between Bhutto and Musharraf, the president would probably relinquish his military role and her party would support his reelection.
The agreement is also expected to include the support of Musharraf’s party in changing the constitution to end the two-term limit on prime ministers so that Bhutto could become prime minister again, and the dropping of corruption charges against her.
Both Bhutto and Musharraf face opposition from within their own parties over such an accord. Some in the former prime minister’s camp accuse the president’s supporters of sabotaging the deal because they fear losing perquisites and privileges.
Despite her long absence and the corruption charges, Bhutto still has a fervent following in Pakistan.
As Makhdoom Amin Fahim, vice president of the party, announced her planned return at a news conference, he was all but drowned out by chants of “Long Live Benazir!” and the popping of firecrackers.
The popularity of Musharraf, who is considered a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, has plummeted since his attempt in March to dismiss Chaudhry, the chief justice. Street protests coalesced into a full-blown movement to drive him from power.
The Pakistani leader also has been buffeted by fierce new challenges from Islamic militants who launched a series of revenge attacks after government forces stormed a radical mosque in the capital in July. The siege and its aftermath left more than 100 people dead.
The latest attack, a suicide bombing Thursday evening at a the mess hall of an army base housing elite troops, was worrisome evidence of militants’ ability to penetrate high-security military installations. Sixteen soldiers were killed.