- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan’s ruling party assured President Pervez Musharraf yesterday that he will be elected to a new five-year term in October before exiled opposition leader Benazir Bhutto returns to the country.

Mrs. Bhutto, the former prime minister who plans to come home from eight years in exile Oct. 18, urged that the presidential vote be delayed until after parliamentary elections, which must be held by mid-January. She also said he should first resign as army chief.

The ruling party dismissed Mrs. Bhutto’s suggestions.

The president is chosen by an electoral college of all national and provincial lawmakers. Gen. Musharraf, whose term expires Nov. 15, wants to seek re-election from the current assemblies, where he enjoys a majority, because the next parliament may be less supportive.

“We have finalized our strategy to elect the president for another five-year term. … We have enough votes to easily elect President Musharraf for another term,” said Azeem Chaudhry, a senior official with the ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam.

Gen. Musharraf’s popularity has slipped in recent months after he tried to fire the country’s top judge and following a surge in attacks by Islamist militants, suggesting his policies against extremism have failed.

Gen. Musharraf has been negotiating a possible power-sharing deal with Mrs. Bhutto, who, like him, is viewed as a pro-Western moderate who supports the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. He faced resistance from his political allies, who were concerned he will make too many concessions to her, and they have not reached an accord so far.

With the election commission’s imminent announcement of the date for the presidential election, ruling party leaders met with Gen. Musharraf yesterday to tell him they had enough votes to elect him, an official at the president’s office said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Two ruling-party officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the vote will take place in the first week of October.

On Friday, Mrs. Bhutto’s party announced she will end her exile and return to Pakistan on Oct. 18 to help restore democracy.

In an interview broadcast yesterday, she urged Gen. Musharraf to quit his army position before contesting the election.

“It is our preference that whosoever wishes to contest for the presidency, whether General Musharraf or somebody else, should do it from the next assembly, and it should be a civilian who contests the … presidential election from the next assembly,” she told Pakistan’s Dawn News TV channel.

Gen. Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup that ousted elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, faces legal challenges over his re-election bid, largely regarding his retention of the post of army chief, the main source of his power.

“We want to take the country back slowly but surely to the constitution that existed before the military coup,” Mrs. Bhutto said.

Her party said the two-time former prime minister, who left the country in 1999 in the face of corruption charges, will return home regardless of the outcome of her talks with Gen. Musharraf.

While the ruling coalition said it has enough support in parliament to get the simple majority to re-elect Gen. Musharraf, the support of Mrs. Bhutto’s party would help achieve the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional amendments that could head off legal challenges to his taking office for another five years.

Despite uncertainty over the talks, the government said that on her return, Mrs. Bhutto will not suffer the fate of Mr. Sharif, who was swiftly expelled when he came back from exile Monday. But officials said she would have to face pending corruption charges.

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