The leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party yesterday said he is willing to explore all possibilities for the return of democracy to his country, but none that would extend President Pervez Musharraf's "dictatorship."
In an interview with The Washington Times, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said, "Coalitions and power-sharing are concepts under normal politics and constitutional rule. ... We are open to all options to ensure restoration of democracy, but we will not become part of any excuse to maintain dictatorship."
Mr. Zardari maintained that the PPP was "not looking for crumbs of power from a dictator's table. We will take our rightful share in power under the constitution after a free and fair election."
If the opposition parties win a majority in the elections, they could move to impeach Mr. Musharraf. The former general has said he would resign in such an event. Mr. Zardari would not say whether such an action was on his agenda.
"This question is hypothetical. For now, we are focused on the elections," he said.
Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Mahmud Ali Durrani, told Washington Times editors and reporters last week that Mr. Musharraf "does not rule out any coalition" after the vote.
Mr. Zardari, however, lashed out at Mr. Musharraf, saying the leader "has shown that he does not respect the constitution and considers his own word above that of the law."
Mr. Zardari is himself a controversial figure in Pakistani politics. Dubbed "Mr. 10 Percent" by opponents for his purportedly corrupt dealings, he served 11 years in prison but points out he was never convicted.
"This was the price I had to pay for being the spouse of Pakistan's symbol of democracy, and I paid it willingly because I shared my wife's commitment. The forces of dictatorship have done everything possible to stay in power — including slander against anyone that opposes them," Mr. Zardari said.
Despite eroding popularity in Pakistan, Mr. Musharraf retains solid support from the U.S., including President Bush, who sees the Pakistani leader as an ally in the war on terror.
Mr. Zardari cautioned that this support for Mr. Musharraf could undermine democracy in Pakistan.
Under U.S. pressure, Mr. Musharraf had scheduled parliamentary elections for Jan. 8, but postponed them until Feb. 18 after Mrs. Bhutto's Dec. 27 assassination.
The first step toward ensuring Pakistan's transition to democracy is free, transparent and fair elections, Mr. Zardari said, although he added, "In the current state, the elections cannot be free and fair."
"The electoral rolls are flawed. The election commission is far from independent. The media and judiciary are not free. The district governments and intelligence agencies are openly engaged in electoral fraud," Mr. Zardari said.
Mr. Zardari has refused to let Pakistani investigators exhume his wife's body for an autopsy, saying he doesn't trust the Musharraf regime.
"All of us know [Mrs. Bhutto] was assassinated," he said. "The doctors who first tried to revive her had clearly stated that they saw bullet wounds — entry and exit. The doctors were then threatened and hushed up. The authorities have all along been trying to cover up and changed their versions," he said.
Mr. Durrani conceded that the Pakistani government had made a mistake by putting out conflicting reports on how Mrs. Bhutto had died, but Mr. Musharraf has rejected Mr. Zardari's demand for a U.N. investigation.
Mr. Musharraf has said Mrs. Bhutto was partly to blame for her death because she took a risk by emerging from the sunroof of her vehicle in the middle of a sea of people.
Mr. Zardari dismissed the claim as outrageous. "She was martyred because of the failure or complicity of the regime to protect her," he said.
Since her death, Mr. Zardari and the couple's 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, have jointly taken the reins of the PPP, founded by Mrs. Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Critics have accused the Bhuttos of handing down leadership of the PPP like a "family heirloom."
Mr. Zardari brushes aside such criticism, saying the decision to elect him and his son co-chairmen of the PPP was made by the party's central executive committee.
"The party leadership felt that in the current chaotic condition in the country and in the party, I could effectively hold the party together and lead them into elections," he said, adding, "Just because the people support one family does not make the choice undemocratic. The chair we now occupy is a bloody one. It is not one that everyone wants."
Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute, predicts that the PPP is likely to split under Mr. Zardari.
"There are a number of strong, capable personalities in the party who may accept Zardari in the short term as necessary to capitalize on the public emotions unleashed by Benazir's death," he said, "But probably only about a third of the activists feel any loyalty to Zardari and, as he begins to shed those he doesn't trust, the fracturing will take place."
According to sources close to the PPP, the party is likely to field Amin Fahim, Mrs. Bhutto's trusted lieutenant, as its candidate for prime minister. Mr. Zardari said such talk was premature, but he promised that the PPP would continue to be a force for democracy and social change.
"The PPP is the only party that has openly identified extremism and dictatorship as the twin challenges that threaten our survival. Fighting militancy was Benazir Bhutto's vision for a stable, modern Pakistan, and I will do all I can to realize this dream," he said.
The younger Mr. Zardari returned to Oxford University soon after his mother's funeral.