The Western-backed deal for a political settlement in Pakistan appeared to be in tatters last night after Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the country's largest opposition party, for the first time called for President Pervez Musharraf to stand down as leader and definitively ruled out a power-sharing deal with him.
Ms Bhutto, who is under house arrest in Lahore, said there was no way she and her party could now work with the military leader. She said she was ready to join forces with another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and other political groups to bring about democracy. "It is time for him to go. He must quit as President. Negotiations between us have broken down over the massive use of police force against women and children. There's no question now of getting this back on track because anyone who is associated with General Musharraf gets contaminated," she told reporters by telephone.
The full impact of Ms Bhutto's comments will only become clear in the coming days. But, in theory, her call for General Musharraf not simply to stand down as head of the armed forces but to leave office altogether, suggests that the power-sharing deal brokered by the United States and Britain over the past two years is dead.
While Ms Bhutto has stepped back from other political pronouncements she has made, she would risk a massive blow to her credibility if she was now to re-enter negotiations with the general.
If taken at face value, Ms Bhutto's move suggests she has calculated that with General Musharraf under intense international pressure and with his public support at an all-time low, now is the time to strike. While Ms Bhutto's initial reaction to the imposition of a state of emergency 11 days ago was restrained, in the past week her comments have become increasingly strident.
"Musharraf himself is a hurdle in the way of democracy," Ms Bhutto told the network Geo TV, which along with all other Pakistani news channels remains off the air inside the country under emergency laws declared on 3 November. "In order to save Pakistan, Musharraf should resign." Asked directly whether she would serve under the general in a future government, she replied: "No."
Yesterday was to have been the day that Ms Bhutto and her followers left Lahore for a "long march" to Islamabad in an effort to rally support in the crucial province of Punjab, not just for her Pakistan's People's Party's (PPP) campaign for scheduled parliamentary elections but also against the state of emergency.
Instead, Ms Bhutto found herself confined inside the house of a senior party member in Lahore, with police blocking off all roads with barricades and barbed wire. Throughout the day, small groups of her supporters arrived chanting slogans in support of the detained political leader only to be arrested by police, with the television cameras making much of the stage-managed drama.
Indeed, the absence of any large crowds of supporters outside her house led some observers to question to what extent Ms Bhutto was genuinely preparing to pitch herself against General Musharraf or whether this was simply the latest barrage in a war of rhetoric.
Either way, Ms Bhutto's comments and her shift from her previous stated policy, of being prepared to work with General Musharraf, caught most people by surprise, including the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "I will look obviously at what Benazir Bhutto has said but the point of consensus up till now with all our international partners – and I'd have to say [with] opposition leaders in Pakistan – has been about the centrality of free and fair elections." He said it was "absolutely clear" that General Musharraf had to stand down as head of the armed forces.
Britain was among nine Commonwealth states which agreed at a crisis meeting in London on Monday that Pakistan should be suspended from the 53-nation organisation unless the emergency measures are repealed and the country moves towards holding free and fair elections by 22 November.
The Commonwealth ministerial action group is to meet again on that date to "review progress" by President Musharraf, on the eve of the Commonwealth summit in Kampala. The action group's chairman, the Maltese foreign minister, Michael Frendo, said yesterday that the Commonwealth demands "are all doable in the time frame". The Canadian high commissioner to London, Jim Wright, said that despite the different views – with African and Pacific states favouring Pakistan's immediate ejection for breaching Commonwealth values, according to diplomats – during their five hours of negotiations the ministers found a way to "give him the opportunity to respond positively".
Mr Sharif welcomed Ms Bhutto's comments, meanwhile. Speaking from Saudi Arabia where he is living, having been deported from Pakistan when he attempted to return in September, he said he believed Pakistan's political opposition was "beginning to get together". He said: "That is the need of the hour because single-handedly to fight dictatorship is going to be a difficult task. If the entire opposition gets united on a one-point agenda to restore the judiciary as it stood on 3 November, all the problems confronting Pakistan today will be solved."
Ms Bhutto had come under criticism from other political opponents of the President for negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with him that would have opened the way for her to serve a third term as prime minister. Ms Bhutto was allowed to return to the country unhindered and an amnesty law removed a series of outstanding corruption charges against her.
There was no reaction from the President's office last night but the railways minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, claimed Ms Bhutto had not closed the door on co-operation. "She talks one thing but walks in a different way," he said. "She knows the election result will be different from what she thought. That is why she is trying to create a disturbance."
Additional reporting by Anne PenkethReuse content