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Musharraf, Bhutto forging alliance
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07:51, July 31, 2007

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Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's secret rendezvous with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in Abu Dhabi last week has left Pakistan guessing what kind of an alliance is being hatched with elections months away.

US ally General Musharraf, going through the weakest phase of his eight years in power, wants another term as president.

Bhutto wants a return after nearly a decade of self exile, and a third chance to run the country as prime minister.

While both Musharraf and Bhutto have kept silence over what transpired in Abu Dhabi on Friday, analysts say the main obstacle to a deal is Bhutto's refusal to support Musharraf's re-election while he is still chief of army staff.

"It will be difficult for her to sell the deal to her supporters if the president refuses to take off his uniform," Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based analyst said. "If Musharraf wants to stay in uniform, then the chances of a deal are bleak. She cannot accept it," he added.

Ideally Musharraf would like to be re-elected is September or October by the current assemblies, while still army chief.

Bhutto, according to analysts, wants him to step down as army chief and be re-elected by the parliament formed after elections, which she expects her party to win, in December or January.

Both leaders want to turn Pakistan into a progressive Muslim nation, but during Musharraf's eight years in power conservative religious forces have grown stronger, and the threat of Islamic militancy is eating away at Pakistan.

Musharraf's need for a new political friend became more urgent after the Supreme Court's decision earlier this month to reinstate a chief justice he had suspended in March.

Bhutto, as leader of Pakistan's most liberal party, which is also the largest in the opposition, should be a natural ally for Musharraf, but they have to overcome ingrained distrust, while her party is allergic to any deals with the military.

Under the constitution, Musharraf is supposed to step down as army chief by the end of 2007, but no one is sure he will do so.

Having taken power in a bloodless military coup in 1999, he had promised to quit as army chief by the end of 2004 as part of a deal with Islamists, but never did.

Bhutto will want firm guarantees to avoid falling into the same trap, analysts say.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of Political Science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, saw the United States playing a role in Musharraf acquiescing.

"The guarantor in this regard will not be Pakistanis. It will be the United States," Rais said.

Analysts say Musharraf and Bhutto would form a formidable duo to counter a rising Islamist tide.

Militants have carried out a spate of attacks and suicide bombings across Pakistan since army commandos stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque complex, a well-known bastion of pro-Taliban radicals, this month.

Islamist groups, who have historically fared poorly in Pakistani elections, made big gains in 2002 partly by exploiting intense anti-American sentiment over US military intervention in Afghanistan.

Islamist parties were also able to occupy part of the space left open by Musharraf's block on popular politicians like Bhutto, and another exiled former two-time prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, returning to Pakistan.

"If Bhutto returns, then definitely it will shrink political space available to religious parties," analyst Rizvi said.

Source: China Daily/agencies

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