Source AP ©

President Musharraf willing to share power with Bhutto if she wins

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is willing to share power with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's party if it wins enough seats in the next parliamentary elections, officials said Wednesday.

Musharraf, who is seeking another five-year term, has held talks with Bhutto - who served twice as prime minister between 1988 and 1996 but saw her governments fall amid allegations of corruption and misrule - over a possible power-sharing agreement.

The Supreme Court had to delay hearing two fresh challenges to Musharraf's candidacy for Saturday's presidential election by national and provincial lawyers after one judge recused himself, saying he had already expressed an opinion while part of a nine-judge panel that rejected other petitions Friday.

"According to my view, it is exactly the same case," said Justice Sardar Mohammed Raza Khan, one of the three judges who dissented from the six-judge majority opinion that allowed Musharraf to run.

The justices were to hear the case Wednesday afternoon without Khan.

The government indicated Tuesday it was ready to pardon Bhutto, clearing her way to participate in politics eight years after she left Pakistan to avoid arrest in corruption cases registered by her old political rival, exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Musharraf's 1999 coup ousted Sharif, who later was exiled to Saudi Arabia. Bhutto plans to return home from London on Oct. 18.

A senior Cabinet minister said Wednesday that Bhutto and the government were close to reaching an understanding about the presidential vote and the parliamentary elections, which are due to be held by January.

"President Musharraf has told us that he would not hesitate to share power with Benazir Bhutto, if she gains enough seats to be part of a government of national consensus," the minister said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

Both Bhutto and Musharraf are pro-U.S. and have called for moderates to unite against extremism. Bhutto said Monday she would cooperate with the American military in targeting Osama bin Laden.

Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Musharraf will soon issue an ordinance granting amnesty in corruption cases up to 1999 in which politicians had not been convicted - meeting one of Bhutto's key demands.

Azim said the amnesty was aimed at easing political acrimony ahead of the parliamentary elections. He indicated it would also apply to Sharif, who also faces corruption charges, but the exiled prime minister has been convicted on several counts since leaving office.

Bhutto has been charged with illegally amassing properties and bank accounts overseas while in power but claims the cases were politically motivated. She was also convicted of money laundering in Switzerland in July 2003 and ordered to pay US$11 million to the Pakistani government. The conviction was automatically thrown out when she contested it, but the case is still under investigation.

Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party gave a cagey response to the amnesty offer and declined to confirm Azim's report that talks between representatives of Bhutto and the government - which had stalled for weeks - had resumed in London and Islamabad on Tuesday.