Bhutto nears deal with Musharraf; court to rule on vote

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ISLAMABAD, Oct 4 (Reuters) Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto said today she expected to seal a ''reconciliation agreement'' with President Pervez Musharraf that analysts believe could lead to power sharing within months.

Although closer to gaining an ally, Musharraf was uncertain whether a presidential election will go ahead in parliament and provincial assemblies on Saturday, as the Supreme Court is hearing fresh challenges to him standing while still army chief.

The court is expected to rule on Friday whether to order the postponement of a vote that General Musharraf, who came to power in a coup eight years ago, looks sure to win.

The fate of Musharraf, a staunch US ally, and nuclear-armed Pakistan is being closely watched, especially by Western nations who have troops in Afghanistan and feel threatened by al Qaeda militants hiding on the Pakistani-Afghan border.

With the Supreme Court yet to rule, Bhutto was careful not to commit fully to any pact with Musharraf when she addressed a news conference in London at the end of two days of talks with leaders of her Pakistan People's Party.

''We feel we have moved forward. We are now optimistic that this is going through and we are close to an understanding,'' she said, adding: ''There's many a slip between the cup and the lip.'' She said the wording of a national reconciliation ordinance that Musharraf planned to issue had still to be finalised, but a decision should be taken tomorrow.

COMING HOME The ordinance will erase corruption charges against civilian leaders, paving the way for Bhutto's planned return on Oct. 18 from more than eight years of self-exile to lead her party's campaign for a general election due by mid-January.

Musharraf's ruling coalition is expected to fare badly due to anger over rising prices, mounting insecurity, distaste for the alliance with the United States, and resentment over being ruled by a military leader for so long.

The United States has quietly encouraged Musharraf and Bhutto to work together to stop Pakistan falling into the thrall of religious conservatives and prey to militants.

Analysts were in no doubt that the proposed reconciliation accord was a precursor to post-election power sharing.

''Of course, it depends on the elections and whether the election is fair and free and whether BB wins, but obviously the agreement on this means that they will cooperate with each other,'' said Shafqat Mehmood, a former minister turned political analyst.

Musharraf has gone a long way to meeting another of Bhutto's pre-conditions, by saying he will quit as army chief and be sworn is a civilian leader by Nov. 15.

But she also wants presidential powers to dismiss a prime minister clipped, having had both her governments in the late-1980s and mid-1990s fall in this way.

''The balance of power between president and parliament has still not been resolved. We still have differences of opinions,'' said Bhutto.

Another Bhutto demand -- the lifting of a ban on two-time prime ministers, such as her, serving a third term -- will require a constitutional amendment.

TO VOTE, OR NOT TO VOTE Bhutto said if her terms were met the PPP wouldn't join other opposition parties seeking to undermine the credibility of the presidential election by quitting parliament. PPP lawmakers would either abstain or vote for their own candidate, she said.

An opposition alliance headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's party is already boycotting the presidential election.

Meantime, opposition lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court to postpone the vote while it weighs the merits of their objections to Musharraf's right to run.

''It is the entire nation, 160 million people's rights which are going to be trampled so please, stay this process,'' opposition lawyer Mohammad Latif Khan Khosa told reporters after the court session was adjourned for the day.

In a major boost to Musharraf late last week, the Supreme Court dismissed challenges to his re-election, only for fresh ones to be mounted this week.

Pakistan's main stock index has gained nearly 6 percent this week, largely on hope that Musharraf, who has overseen strong growth and booming stocks, will be re-elected.


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