The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Pervez seeks bar on ex-PMs’ return

Islamabad, Aug. 11 (Reuters): Beleaguered President Pervez Musharraf wants exiled former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to stay away from Pakistan before the coming parliamentary elections, a cabinet minister said today.

Elections are due in Pakistan later this year or in early 2008. Musharraf, who this week considered but rejected a proposal to impose emergency rule, told newspaper editors that the return of the leaders of two mainstream political parties could stir political instability.

“Elections must be free and fair and all political parties should play their part in creating an environment conducive to such polls,” information minister Mohammad Ali Durrani, who attended the meeting, said.

“The President said the political status quo should be maintained to avoid political instability,” he said, referring to the exiled politicians’ plans to return home.

By issuing executive decrees, Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup eight years ago, effectively blocked Bhutto and Sharif from returning and taking part in elections in 2002.

The absence of the two popular leaders paved the way for Musharraf’s allies to come to power and created a political vacuum that hardline Islamic groups have filled.

Both exiled politicians have since vowed to return home before the elections as Musharraf’s popularity has plummeted after his botched attempt to oust the chief justice in March.

With the chief justice reinstated, Musharraf also faces a supreme court that could now rule in favour of Bhutto’s and Sharif’s return.

Speculation has mounted in Pakistan that Musharraf, who is also army chief, is trying to forge a power-sharing deal with Bhutto. The Pakistan People’s Party leader and Musharraf met secretly in Abu Dhabi last month but Bhutto has insisted that Musharraf should resign from the army to pave the way for any pact.

Benazir alliance

In an interview with Reuters today, Bhutto said she hoped to return to Pakistan by mid-October for elections in which she may form an alliance with Musharraf.

“I would like to go back to Pakistan sooner rather than later but Musharraf still is opposed to my return to Pakistan,” Bhutto said. “He’s prepared for my return to Pakistan but the timing of it is under dispute.”

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