Stepping Into the Tumult

Benazir Bhutto's bold plan

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Benazir Bhutto

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Ahead of her planned high-profile return to a deeply unsettled Pakistan, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is putting on a brave face. "I do not know what awaits me personally or politically once I leave the airport," she told a Capitol Hill audience last week. "I pray for the best, but I prepare for the worst. But in any case, I am going home. I do not fear the extremists."

Bhutto is making the final diplomatic rounds ahead of her scheduled flight to Karachi on October 18 in an apparent effort to inoculate herself against possible arrest or deportation. For one thing, she wants to avoid the fate of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was deported only hours after he tried to return from exile last month.

Secret talks. But Bhutto has also been playing a delicate game, negotiating in secret with Pakistan's weakened president, Pervez Musharraf, while publicly pushing for an end to his military rule. She has been perhaps Pakistan's most popular political figure, even during her eight years of self-exile, but the talks have diminished her standing among Pakistanis convinced that the pair have already reached some sort of power-sharing deal ahead of the October 6 presidential election. Musharraf "has enough votes to win," says Athar Hashmi, a Pakistani political analyst. "He just needs the legitimacy of the election, and that is what Benazir is providing him."

Musharraf did clear one important hurdle in his effort to extend his eight-year military-backed rule. Pakistan's Supreme Court, which has been seen as increasingly hostile to Musharraf, disappointed the general's critics last week when it dismissed a series of legal challenges to his re-election. Despite a constitutional ban on military officers running for president, the decision frees Musharraf to compete in this week's election, which will be decided by an electoral college of parliamentarians and provincial assemblies. Even his strongest opponent—nominated by a coalition of lawyers who have been spearheading the most serious protests against military rule—believes Musharraf will win. "But," says retired justice Wajihuddin Ahmed, "his moral standing is zero."

For Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party, the stakes are high. Bhutto has said that Musharraf must resign as Army chief before the October 6 elections or her party might pull out of Parliament. Failure to follow through would damage what remains of Bhutto's popular support, but a mass resignation could carry more personal risks for her. "Maybe then we will be joining the other leaders behind bars," she says. "I hope not." The two-time prime minister faces her own constitutional hurdles to another term in office. But she sounds ready for a fight. "On the third time around, and being over 50, I would like to be my own person," she says, "even if that means not lasting very long."