George Negus speaks with former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto about her political exile and her possible return to politics.
Ms Bhutto says she intends to return home, form an alliance with Narwaz Sharif, also an ex-prime minister, and try to pull off some sort of democratic deal with Pervez Musharraf, the country’s incumbent President.
General Musharraf, of course, is an unelected military dictator who’s kept a solid grip on power now for eight years.
GEORGE NEGUS: Ms Bhutto, it is nice to be talking to you again after such a long time and under very unusual circumstances.
BENAZIR BHUTTO, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF PAKISTAN: That’s right, it’s good to talk to you again.
GEORGE NEGUS: Could I start by saying to you, after all you have been through in recent times, both you and your family, and what you could be facing if you go back to Pakistan as you’ve suggested – jail, maybe even an attempt on your life – one has to ask you, why go back to Pakistan at all, let alone to try and lead the country?
BENAZIR BHUTTO: Many of my friends are shocked that I have taken the decision to return, but Pakistan is my country, it’s in trouble, and I feel that I could contribute towards improving the situation. So I feel it is my duty and my responsibility to return and work for a better Pakistan that is peaceful and that can actually count in eliminating the forces of terrorism that seem to have expanded their influence since my government was overthrown.
GEORGE NEGUS: I’d like to talk to you about that in a moment, but can we talk about what I have seen described as “a negotiated transition to democracy” that you are talking about. A curious situation where we could find two ex-prime ministers doing some sort of democratic deal with a military dictator to try and form a government in Pakistan?
BENAZIR BHUTTO: I have problems with the word ‘deal’ because it gives the impression that we would be supporting dictatorship and that’s not my agenda. My party and I are very interested in facilitating a transition to democracy because we believe that democracy undermines religious extremism by providing for the social and economic needs of the people who otherwise are exploited by religious extremists. So therefore my party has had contact – it hasn’t led anywhere yet – but we have tried to seek, if possible, a negotiated transition to democracy. And if it’s not possible, we are prepared to take the risk and do our best in the elections that have been promised for this year.
GEORGE NEGUS: So how far down the track are you with this negotiated arrangement? Has there been actual contact between you or your people and the current President? And also Narwaz Sharif? Are the three groups talking?
BENAZIR BHUTTO: We are not all talking together, so to say, but Mr Narwaz Sharif and I are both committed to the restoration of democracy and to the holding of fair elections under an independent election commission. And with those goals in mind, there have been contacts with the regime. But unfortunately they haven’t led anywhere. There has been a lot of talk, but no concrete development, and I think the regime may perhaps just be buying time and giving the illusion that it is interested in a political settlement when in fact it might be trying to consolidate its dictatorship. Certainly recent events in Pakistan, including the sacking of the top judge, indicate that the regime wants to continue as it has in the past, and that’s not worked.
GEORGE NEGUS: You say you’re not comfortable with the term ‘deal’, but as somebody put it to me earlier today here, aren’t you dancing with the devil? I mean, this man is not a democrat, he is a dictator, he gained power by a coup. How is it really possible for people like yourselves, as democrats, to be even considering such an arrangement?
BENAZIR BHUTTO: First of all, you said “dancing with the devil”, but this devil is one that has a tremendous amount of international support, from many countries. Your Prime Minister has visited Pakistan, and he has a lot of support in London and in Washington.
GEORGE NEGUS: True.
BENAZIR BHUTTO: Pakistan is a key state in the war against terrorism and there is a lot of concern in the international community over what will happen if Musharraf is changed or removed. And it’s to address those concerns that the Pakistan Peoples Party feels that it is important for us to emphasise that what we are looking for is not a break in the efforts to counter terrorism. That what we are looking for are more successful programs because unless we address the basic needs of the people of Pakistan, we’re not going to get very far as far as peace within Pakistan or peace in neighbouring Afghanistan is concerned.
GEORGE NEGUS: Aren’t you facing an enormous hurdle because, as you said, in London and Washington and Canberra, for some obscure reason, Pervez Musharraf is acceptable, despite not being elected.
BENAZIR BHUTTO: I am unsure exactly where I said that, but I do believe that he is sitting there, he has got the international support. We need fair elections, and we need a way out. Now, whether that is possible, I am unsure. I am unsure because I think General Musharraf would prefer to keep his military dictatorship going as it has, with a few coteries running the affairs of the country rather than accepting the will of the people. But nonetheless, I’m prepared to explore that, and if it fails, I’m still prepared to go back to Pakistan and fight the elections to the best of my ability and my party’s ability.
GEORGE NEGUS: So you think it’s worth the compromise that is involved?
BENAZIR BHUTTO: There isn’t a compromise yet, Mr Negus!
GEORGE NEGUS: But you’re hoping there will be one?
BENAZIR BHUTTO: The issue we’re discussing is fair elections. We, the PPP, would like to see elections that are transparent and open to all political personalities including the exiled prime ministers. At the moment there are huge question marks over whether General Musharraf and his regime is going to do that. In fact just last month, General Musharraf said that he would not allow us to former prime ministers return and contest because they had already been elected twice. It surprised me, because he is running for a third term for president and has already given himself four extensions as chief of army staff. So I think there is a certain mind-set within the military. But we have a situation internationally where the military regime has a lot of support, and it has a lot of support for strategic reasons. So we would like a peaceful, negotiated, facilitated transfer to democracy. If that’s not possible, my fear is that the street agitation could increase and who knows who will ultimately emerge as the winner of that agitation.
GEORGE NEGUS: Can I ask you this – what is actually going to happen? You say that you think there is a window of opportunity for you and Narwaz Sharif to go back to Pakistan despite the fact he said he was doesn’t want you there – the President – between September and December. What will happen when you turn up at the airport in Islamabad or Karachi?
BENAZIR BHUTTO: When I turn up in Islamabad or Karachi, the regime might try to stop me. They might arrest my supporters. Or they might think this would be detrimental to the image of Pakistan as we head towards elections, and they might allow the crowd to gather. It could go either way. I know that I could get bail from the court, and so they wouldn’t be able to arrest me on any existing unproven allegation, but it doesn’t take long in my country to make up another allegation. So they might arrest me. The future is uncertain, but one thing I know – that elections are scheduled for later this year and that my party would certainly benefit if I am a contestant in those elections.
GEORGE NEGUS: What you have also said is that the battle lines have been drawn in Pakistan. The military dictatorship versus democracy, and moderate Islam versus extremism. You believe that these elections that you are talking about may be the last chance Pakistan has to choose a moderate path. Your fear, you say, is if we do not act in these elections, the next election may be too late. That’s pretty dramatic.
BENAZIR BHUTTO: That’s right, but I made that statement on the basis on the developments that have taken place first, since my dismissal in 1996. It was after that dismissal that al-Qaeda emerged and from the soil of Afghanistan started making threats to the world community. Secondly, the attacks around the world – whether it was in New York, Madrid, London, Bali, or India – began. And thirdly, since 2002 I’ve seen that the Taliban or al-Qaeda forces have begun expanding their influence within Pakistan. General Musharraf’s regime has ceded our tribal territories to pro-Taliban forces, who today administer and collect taxes and dispense their form of justice. Now they are spreading their influence into the settled areas, into the cities of the frontier provinces – into Swat and Malakand – and they are also approaching Islamabad.
GEORGE NEGUS: So you have your doubts about whether Pervez Musharraf is actually trying to stop the activities of people like al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, but didn’t you yourself find it difficult will to deal with them? Didn’t you in fact support them in the early days?
BENAZIR BHUTTO: Never al-Qaeda. Never al-Qaeda.
GEORGE NEGUS: And the Taliban?
BENAZIR BHUTTO: Yes, that was a mistake, but the Taliban were there in Afghanistan. It was a mistake that many countries made when they first came up and we thought that they might bring peace to Afghanistan. But you know, Mr Negus, there are many ghastly dictatorships all over the world, and at that time the Taliban was just another ghastly dictatorship in Afghanistan. There was no al-Qaeda. It was only after the removal of my government that al-Qaeda was formed, and it was then that they began training people. Had I been in power, I would have brought all the influence and pressure to bear on landlocked Afghanistan and Taliban to prevent them allowing the establishment of al-Qaeda camps. That is one of my biggest regrets, that my government was dislodged and al-Qaeda took root and today the Western world and the Muslim world are facing great difficulties due to the creation and spread of al-Qaeda.
GEORGE NEGUS: And you seriously believe that if you don’t move at this time to try to get yourself involved – despite the risks entailed – if you don’t get involved this time it could be too late and Pakistan will move further and further into Taliban territory?
BENAZIR BHUTTO: Yes, I believe that, because just in the last five years within our capital of Islamabad, the militant forces have established a new political madrassa where they are training 7,000 people. This is just one new madrassa. They have spread all over the country, and if they get five more years, there will build up more political madrassas, which are really like little mini army headquarters from where they carry out their subversive and militant activities.
GEORGE NEGUS: We have run out of time, unfortunately, but thank you very much for your time, and, as I found myself saying earlier, it’s very difficult to keep a good Pakistani woman down.
BENAZIR BHUTTO: Thank you, Mr Negus. Thank you for that.