- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is coming home next month to press for the restoration of democracy, regardless of the outcome of her talks on sharing power with Pakistan’s U.S.-allied military president, her party said yesterday.

The government, meanwhile, said Mrs. Bhutto would not suffer the fate of political rival Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister who was swiftly expelled when he returned from exile Monday, but officials said she would have to face pending corruption charges.

Mrs. Bhutto will return on Oct. 18, her party officials said.

Mrs. Bhutto, who left Pakistan eight years ago amid the charges, has been negotiating with President Pervez Musharraf on the possibility of combining their political forces to share power after elections.

Gen. Musharraf, also head of Pakistan’s military, is seeking allies in his effort to win election by parliament to a new presidential term. He has seen his popularity slide this year after he tried to remove the Supreme Court’s popular chief judge and Islamist militants stepped up attacks.

Mrs. Bhutto and Gen. Musharraf thus far have failed to reach an accord, amid signs Gen. Musharraf is reluctant to give up the sweeping powers he seized in a 1999 coup.

Mrs. Bhutto, 56, said Pakistan needs to return to civilian rule as it prepares for parliamentary elections that must be held by January.

“This will strengthen our efforts for democracy,” Mrs. Bhutto, who lives in exile in Dubai and London, said later on Pakistan’s Geo Television. “Democracy should be restored completely and the army removed from the scene.”

The U.S. government — which has viewed Gen. Musharraf as key regional ally since he dropped Pakistan’s support for the Taliban after the September 11 terror attacks — took no position Mrs. Bhutto’s return.

“We’re not in the business of picking candidates; we’re not in the business of favoring parties,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. “We have an interest, obviously, in seeing Pakistani democracy move forward and progress. Part of that is having free, fair and open, transparent elections.”

Pakistan People’s Party Vice President Makhdoom Amin Fahim said on Oct. 18 Mrs. Bhutto will fly to Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and the capital of her home province of Sindh.

Party supporters responded by throwing flower petals and firecrackers and chanting “Long live Benazir, Prime Minister Benazir.”

Mrs. Bhutto was only 35 when she became prime minister in 1988, the first female leader of a modern Muslim nation. She was elected to a second term in 1993.

Both her governments were dismissed amid corruption charges, chronic economic problems and purported differences with Pakistan’s powerful military.

But Mrs. Bhutto is one of Pakistan’s best-known politicians, the daughter of a prime minister who was deposed and sent to the gallows under a previous military leader.

The date she chose for her return is three days after the deadline for legislators to elect a president for a five-year term. That will let her see the outcome of the negotiations with the government and of legal challenges to Gen. Musharraf’s eligibility for another term.

Party leaders said the door for negotiations with Gen. Musharraf will remain open until Oct. 18.

Earlier yesterday, a government spokesman said Mrs. Bhutto would be treated differently from Mr. Sharif, a conservative whose government was toppled in 1999 by Gen. Musharraf.

“Nawaz Sharif’s case was different. He went back to Saudi Arabia because of an undertaking he had with the Saudi government” to stay away from Pakistan for 10 years, government spokesman Tariq Azim said. “[Mrs. Bhutto] was always allowed to come back.”

Asked about corruption charges against Mrs. Bhutto, he said: “It’s for the law to take its own course. Everybody has to face cases against them and the same applies to her.”

Mr. Azim said the schedule for the presidential vote by lawmakers will be announced in the next three to four days.

He said Gen. Musharraf’s talks with Mrs. Bhutto were snagged over her desire for the corruption cases to be dropped and for a constitutional amendment to let her seek a third term as prime minister. He said there also were differences over the president’s re-election bid, a possible allusion to Mrs. Bhutto wanting Gen. Musharraf to give up his military post.

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