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Benazir, Nawaz Agree on Charter of Democracy for Pakistan

By Zeeshan Haider

ISLAMABAD, February 11: Pakistan's two top opposition leaders, former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, met in exile on Thursday and pledged to fight together for the restoration of a "real democracy" in their homeland.

Bhutto met with her erstwhile rival in the western Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, where Sharif has lived since his exile in late 2000. Bhutto has spent the past five years in self-imposed exile for fear of arrest on corruption charges.

The meeting, which lasted for two and a half hours, was their first since President Pervez Musharraf ousted Sharif in a bloodless and popular military coup in late 1999.

Opposition against Musharraf, a key ally in the US-led war on terrorism, has fallen into disarray without any strong personality inside Pakistan. Parliamentary elections are due in 2007.

Bhutto was accompanied by her husband Asif Ali Zardari, who was released on bail in November after spending eight years in jail on charges ranging from murder to corruption. (Picture shows Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, BB and Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif).

Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League issued a statement after the meeting saying Pakistan must revert to "real democracy" as soon as possible through free, fair and transparent elections.

"Both parties will cooperate and work at every level to achieve this sacred goal," it said. "They resolved that they would not act in any way that would help non-democratic forces to negate ... democratic rights of the people of Pakistan."

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) issued a similar statement. "Both leaders agreed to adopt a minimum program for restoration of democracy in Pakistan," it said.

Musharraf secured a mandate to become president after holding a referendum in 2002, which critics say was rigged in his favor. Parliamentary elections in the same year brought a pro-military government to power.

He argues that genuine democracy is working in Pakistan and rejects calls for elections earlier than 2007.

Islamists provide the main opposition to Musharraf, who has co-opted the rump of Sharif's Muslim League to back his government.

Many observers, however, believe General Musharraf's natural constituency lies within the more liberal ranks of the PPP, but mutual dislike with Bhutto has prevented any deal so far.

Musharraf, who has in the past derided both former prime ministers as venal politicians, has made reconciliatory moves in recent months -- most notably through the release of Zardari.

The government also returned the passport of a nephew of Sharif to let him go abroad to see his family.

Political observers believe Musharraf may be seeking to find favor. with the PPP and Sharif's Muslim League faction after angering Islamist parties by going back on his promise to step down as army chief by the end of last year.

BBC reports: Former Pakistani premiers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have signed a three-point agreement for promoting democracy in Pakistan. The pact was made in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Thursday, during their first ever meeting as opposition leaders.

It calls for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan, an independent election commission and respect for popular mandate. The two have been campaigning in exile against President Pervez Musharraf.

Former federal minister and leader of Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML) Ahsan Iqbal told the BBC Urdu service from Jeddah that the agreement was reached during the three hour meeting.

Mr Iqbal said the two leaders also agreed to set up working groups within their respective parties to draw up a wide-ranging charter for democracy. There were no public statements on their discussions from the leaders themselves.

Saudi authorities prohibit the use of their soil for all forms of political activity by those in opposition at home.

But observers in Pakistan were attaching significant importance to the meeting despite the prohibition.

Ms Bhutto also took the opportunity to condole the death of Mr Sharif's father while the latter congratulated her on the release of her husband, Asif Ali Zardari.

Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif's respective political parties are opposing the government of General Pervez Musharraf under the umbrella of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD).

Ms Bhutto has been in self-imposed exile - shuttling between Dubai and London - since being ousted by the military in 1996.

Likewise, Mr Sharif was evicted from Pakistan under a deal with the Saudi authorities, a few months after he was convicted of criminal conspiracy by a Pakistani court in the year 2000.

Under the agreement, Mr Sharif is barred from returning to Pakistan till 2010. - Reuters/BBC

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