Pakistan’s exiled chiefs meet

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Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s exiled opposition leaders, yesterday began a round of meetings in London described by
their parties as the first
step towards a joint campaign against the government of General Pervez Musharraf.

Ms Bhutto, accompanied by a small group of aides, called on Mr Sharif at his flat in central London.

The conference was described by political analysts as a crucial meeting between the two former prime ministers, who were once sworn enemies but have found a common foe in Gen Musharraf.

“There may be a history [of antagonism] but times have changed. Opposition parties are finding themselves marginalised and this has given birth to new thinking in both of our parties,” said Fawzia Wahab, a member of parliament representing Ms Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s party.

Siddique-ul-Farooque, a leader of Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League said: “This meeting is just a first step. But often, first steps lead to a long journey, and we are determined to walk this road together.”

The two parties are gearing up to work towards a charter of democracy, which opposition leaders said would be signed by Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif in London next month.

The charter includes a commitment to resist the Pakistani military’s influence in politics.

The military has ruled Pakistan for more than half its 59 years as an independent state.

In sharp contrast, no elected prime minister has completed a full term except for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the father of Ms Bhutto.

Mr Bhutto was hanged in 1979, two years after his government was toppled in a military coup led by the late General Zia ul Haq.

The two opposition parties have not yet demonstrated their ability to mobilise mass support on the streets. Gen Musharraf has
also divided the opposition parties and won support from breakaway factions
of both.

But western diplomats said Gen Musharraf was likely to face rising pressure to move Pakistan towards a more representative democracy after national elections due next year.

He may also face renewed calls to honour a so far broken promise to step down in 2004 as chief of the military and continue as a civilian president.

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