Pakistan's ex-PM Bhutto to set date for return

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ISLAMABAD, Sep 14 (Reuters) Self-exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is due to announce a date for her return to Pakistan today, without any breakthrough in sight in talks on a power-sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf and Bhutto have been trying for months to secure a pact that would help him get re-elected for a second five-year term and allow her to return without fear of prosecution on a raft of outstanding corruption cases.

But, with a presidential election due within the next four weeks, there are no signs that they have reached an accord.

''We are going to announce the date of Mohtarma (Madam) Benazir Bhutto irrespective of whether there is any agreement or not,'' Bhutto's spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.

''Time is fast running out and we don't have any more scheduled talks.'' Earlier this week, authorities bundled off another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to Saudi Arabia hours after he landed at Islamabad airport after a seven-year exile.

But Sharif is the man Musharraf ousted eight years ago, whereas Bhutto is a potential ally.

An aide to Bhutto said this month she planned to return to the country in October, which would enable her to lead her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) campaign for parliamentary and provincial assembly elections due around the end of the year.

Musharraf has seen his authority eroded and popularity dwindle since his unsuccessful attempt to fire the country's chief justice in March.

Analysts say he needs support from a mainstream party to retain the presidency -- the trouble is he has marginalised both the PPP and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League faction.

PERSONALITY COUNTS But while Musharraf and Bhutto share progressive, liberal leanings, and the United States appears to be encouraging moderate forces to coalesce, there are serious doubts about how long the two strong personalities could work together.

Bhutto's first condition is that Musharraf should quit the army and become a civilian president, but she also wants the law amended so that she can become prime minister for a third time.

Having been sacked twice before in the 1990s she also wants some check on presidential powers to fire a prime minister.

Musharraf's current political friends fear any deal with Bhutto, as they could end up marginalised.

The ruling coalition is mainly made up of rump of Sharif's party and defectors from Bhutto's party.

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Railways Minister and a close ally of Musharraf, said most of the issues with Bhutto -- including Musharraf's army role -- had been settled and the sticking point was the ban on a person becoming prime minister for a third time.

''Uniform is no longer an issue in talks with Benazir Bhutto. The president has made up his mind on uniform and he will speak out his mind at an appropriate time,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Musharraf faces a slew of legal challenges in the Supreme Court, regarded as hostile since his ill-fated attempt to sack the chief justice.

A nine-member bench of the Supreme Court is due to begin hearing next week a petition against Musharraf's bid to stand for a second term, and his right to hold the offices of president and army chief at the same time.

If the case goes against him, and he still has no deal with Bhutto, Musharraf could put off his re-election for at least three months by dissolving the National Assembly and seeking a mandate from the next parliament.

In a worst case scenario, he could impose emergency rule that could extend the tenure of the parliament and postpone elections.

''He is facing serious problems. He is fast running out of options. He has to take decisions soon what he wants to do,'' Lahore-based analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said.


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