With Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf in an unusually vulnerable political position, one of that nation's most popular opposition leaders, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is pledging to return home from self-exile on October 18.
Her planned return sets up a potential political confrontation just as Musharraf has been maneuvering to arrange his controversial re-election.
It was only two weeks ago that another popular opposition figure, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, tried to return from his self-exile and was not allowed to even leave the airport. Musharraf unceremoniously deported him to Saudi Arabia, sparking a new round of protests at home.
Now, Bhutto is making a final public relations tour before her planned October return to Karachi, the Pakistani business capital. "I do not know what awaits me personally or politically once I leave the airport," she told a Washington audience. "I pray for the best, but I do prepare for the worst. But in any case, I am going home. I do not fear the extremists."
Speaking on Capitol Hill, Bhutto said that her case was different from that of Sharif. For one thing, he had formally accepted a deal with Musharraf to go into exile nearly a decade ago in return for not being sentenced on criminal charges. Musharraf made a similar proposal to Bhutto. "I refused that offer," she said, noting that aides had suggested that if she accepted, her husband could be released from prison (where he was held on allegations of corruption and other charges). "He paid the price—he stayed eight years in prison without a conviction," she said.
Bhutto, despite her absence, has retained a large following in Pakistan. Her popularity, however, slipped in recent months after she opened a power-sharing dialogue with Musharraf. Many opposition figures criticized her willingness to work with the military ruler, but she continues to defend her decision. "My goal," she said, "was, quite literally, to save democracy in Pakistan."
Just a few weeks ago, there were leaked reports that a deal was nearly done that would clear the way for Bhutto's return. That deal hasn't happened, and she said that for now, those negotiations have stalled. She blamed "extremists in his party who have refused to accept a democratic process."
Next week, Musharraf has to file his nomination papers to formally launch his re-election bid. The move will open up another set of court challenges and very likely spark even more demonstrations.
For her part, Bhutto faces a tough decision ahead of the October 6 election, when an electoral college of parliamentarians and provincial assemblies will vote on the next president. Bhutto said her Pakistan People's Party will have to either abstain from the vote, which would still allow Musharraf to prevail, or resign from parliament in public protest. We "are not supporting Musharraf yet," she said.
Her party will meet in London, where Bhutto lives in exile, on October 3. "Unless General Musharraf moves toward democracy, people might think, if we don't resign, that we are bailing out a dictatorship," she said. But a resignation could also prompt a crackdown against many of her supporters. Musharraf has already arrested hundreds of opposition figures in recent weeks, although Bhutto's party has been spared up to now. Bhutto acknowledged that could change if her party does leave parliament. "Maybe then we will be joining the other leaders behind bars," she said. "I hope not."
She also sketched out her intention to crack down on extremists in Pakistan. "Militants cannot hold the foreign policy of Pakistan hostage, whether that foreign policy relates to India or whether that foreign policy relates to Afghanistan," she said. "Within Pakistan, the challenge is for Pakistan to dismantle the militant networks that have made life miserable for ordinary people who can no longer live in security."
At this point, both Bhutto and Musharraf face constitutional hurdles to their political ambitions. Musharraf is under pressure to resign as Army chief, while Bhutto, as a two-time prime minister, is barred from holding the post again. The country's supreme court is expected to rule soon on Musharraf's eligibility.