Pakistani PM offers Bhutto talks: Sharif woos opposition leader to win her support in a messy power struggle

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The Independent Online
PRIME Minister Nawaz Sharif and his arch-rival Benazir Bhutto agreed yesterday to hold their first talks in five years of bitter confrontation to settle what both called a political crisis confronting Pakistan.

Mr Sharif made the offer of talks to the opposition leader and his predecessor as prime minister at a special session of the National Assembly, called after the dissolution of two provincial assemblies in the last two days. He promised to end victimisation of his opponents.

Ms Bhutto accepted the offer, but insisted that a real solution lay in fresh elections. Mr Sharif offered the face-to-face talks five days after the Supreme Court reinstated him as prime minister following his dismissal last month by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan on disputed charges of misrule. The dissolution of the provincial assemblies of Punjab and the North West Frontier Province over the weekend means that provincial elections will have to be held within the next 90 days. The two other provincial assemblies of Sind and Baluchistan could also be dissolved as their chief ministers are loyal to the President.

President Khan is now making another attempt to undermine Mr Sharif. By dissolving the provincial assemblies, the President is trying to force Mr Sharif to dissolve the National Assembly as well, and hold general elections. The President is strongly supported in this by Ms Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Last night at a special session of the National Assembly, Mr Sharif appealed for a conciliation with Ms Bhutto. 'The state of war between the government and the opposition should come to an end. The time has come to sit face to face and to defeat the conspiracies against the country,' he said. His reference was to the President. Mr Sharif is attempting to woo Ms Bhutto to drive a wedge between her and the President.

At the same time Sharif loyalists are trying to gain the necessary two-thirds majority in the Assembly so that they can impeach the President or force him to resign. Yesterday the Prime Minister met the army chief, General Abdul Waheed, and asked him to put pressure on the President to step down, according to sources close to Mr Sharif. The army has so far remained neutral, but both the President and the Prime Minister are lobbying for its support. Some politicians in Punjab have switched sides three times in the past five weeks, as the President and Mr Sharif use inducements to win them over.

The latest round was sparked off by the President's apparent refusal to accept the Supreme Court's decision to reinstate Mr Sharif as prime minister. Although he has made no public statement, the President's aides are determined to oust Mr Sharif a second time. Ms Bhutto has publicly criticised the Supreme Court's decision, creating a crisis of confidence in the judiciary.

Yesterday her supporters clashed with police outside the Lahore High Court where judges were considering a plea by Mr Sharif's lawyers that the dismissal of the Punjab assembly was unconstitutional. Ms Bhutto's supporters chanted slogans against the judiciary, seen as the last recourse for arbitration.

Both the President and Ms Bhutto are determined to see an end to the Sharif government so that elections can be held in which they hope that an opposition alliance of the PPP, dissidents from Mr Sharif's Muslim League and regional parties can win a majority and form a government. Mr Sharif, who still has two years as prime minister, is determined to thwart them. With the President up to his neck in politics and the judiciary being badmouthed by Ms Bhutto, there is no civil institution capable of arbitrating between the politicians. If the fracas worsens, the army is likely to intervene.