Musharraf, Bhutto agree crunch deal

Musharraf, Bhutto agree crunch deal

Islamabad: Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf seemed to have cleared a key hurdle to his smooth re-election after agreeing a deal with former premier Benazir Bhutto that paves the way for power-sharing.

After increasingly frantic negotiations, the government and Bhutto’s party said they had both agreed on a national reconciliation accord which would be made public later on 5 October.

It takes a huge amount of pressure off Musharraf, a key US ally, ahead of Saturday’s presidential election in which he is controversially standing while still holding his post of army chief.

Bhutto, whose Pakistan People’s Party is the largest in the country, had threatened to rob the election of much of its credibility by pulling her MPs from parliament.

The accord gives an amnesty for politicians active in Pakistan between 1988 and 1999 -- effectively clearing Bhutto of the corruption charges that forced her into exile eight years ago.

It came after Bhutto met with key members of her party in London where she has spent much of her time since leaving Pakistan.

Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid, a close confidant of the president, said the deal was done. “They have agreed on the draft and it will be issued by the president tomorrow. Benazir Bhutto has given her assent," he told AFP.

Musharraf is expected to win a second term in Saturday’s vote by the two houses of parliament and four provincial assemblies, but he would benefit from Bhutto’s support ahead of general elections due in early 2008.

He has vowed to quit as army chief by 15 November if elected.

“The agreement says that there will be an across-the-board indemnity for public office holders between 1988 and 1999," a senior government official who has seen the draft said on condition of anonymity.

It also specifies that if Pakistan’s main graft-busting body wants to lodge a case against a politician, it must first go through a special parliamentary committee “to avoid allegations of political motivations."

“The ordinance is not party or person-specific," the official said.

For its part, Bhutto’s party has agreed to withdraw a legal petition filed by its vice president in the Supreme Court that seeks to have the presidential election postponed, the official said.

A senior party member in Islamabad, PPP lawyer Farooq Naik, confirmed the deal.

“The agreement has been done with the government and we expect the government to issue it tomorrow. We have given it our go-ahead," he said.

Officials, however, said the amnesty agreement would not apply to ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted in a coup in 1999.

Sharif, who started a 10-year exile period in 2000, returned to Pakistan in September but was immediately deported again.

Bhutto has vowed to return by 18 October. It will be her second homecoming after she was driven out by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

She said earlier that if a definitive deal was reached, her party members would remain in parliament and either vote for its own candidate in the polls or abstain.

Bhutto has previously demanded that Musharraf should grant her an amnesty, give up his power to dismiss parliament and the prime minister and change the constitution so premiers can serve a third term.

She said earlier that the other terms would be dealt with later.

The White House made no comment on the agreement and repeated instead its call for “free and fair" elections.

However the United States has been quietly striving for a deal that would bring together two Western-friendly leaders together in a country wracked by violence linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.

Musharraf faces one more last-ditch court challenge against the legitimacy of the vote by one of his election rivals, former judge Wajihuddin Ahmad, who argues that halting the vote is the only way to prevent unrest.

The court is expected to rule later on 5 October.