Pakistan's ruling party assured President Gen. Pervez Musharraf he will be elected to a new five-year term, top officials said Saturday, and the vote will likely take place the first week of October.
An announcement on the date from the Election Commission is imminent, the officials said Saturday — a day after opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's party announced she would return to Pakistan on Oct. 18 after an eight-year exile to help restore democracy.
"As far as the ruling party is concerned, we have finalized our strategy to elect the president for another five-year term ... we have enough votes to easily elect President Musharraf for another term," said Azeem Chaudhry, a senior official in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party.
Two ruling party officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the vote would take place in the first week of October, ignoring the suggestion of Bhutto, who wanted Musharraf to seek a vote from the new Parliament after the parliamentary elections.
The president, whose term expires Nov. 15, is elected by an electoral college of all national and provincial lawmakers. The five-year term for the current Parliament expires later this year.
Musharraf has seen his popularity slide this year after he tried to remove the Supreme Court's popular chief judge and Islamic militants stepped up attacks. But the ruling coalition says it has enough support to get the simple majority needed to re-elect Musharraf, who also holds the post of army chief.
The officials said a delegation from the ruling party — headed by its chief Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain — assured Musharraf on Saturday that they would elect him for another term.
Chaudhry said during negotiations with Musharraf, Bhutto had demanded too much from the government in return for backing the military leader, including that the constitution be amended so she could become prime minister for a third term if her party wins parliamentary elections — due by January 2008.
"If we do it, it will send a signal that Benazir Bhutto is the future prime minister, and in this situation who will vote for us?" Chaudhry said.
Bhutto to return to Pakistan
On Friday, Bhutto's party announced the two-time former prime minister who left the country in 1999 amid corruption allegations will return home on Oct. 18 to campaign in the parliamentary elections, regardless of the outcome of her talks with Pakistan's U.S.-allied military leader.
Both Bhutto and Musharraf are urging moderates to work together to defeat Taliban and al-Qaida extremists based along the frontier with Afghanistan. But they have failed to produce an accord, amid signs Musharraf is reluctant to give up his sweeping powers.
On Saturday, Bhutto — who lives in exile in Dubai and London — told Pakistan's Dawn news channel that Musharraf should seek a vote from the new Parliament.
"As far as the elections for the president are concerned, I think it will be much wiser for General Musharraf — were he to ask my opinion — to defer his election to the next assembly," she said.
The support of Bhutto's party would help achieve the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional amendments that could head off of legal challenges to his re-election bid.
One of the ruling party officials, seeking anonymity, told The Associated Press the Bhutto-Musharraf talks had divided the ruling party, with many concerned their own electoral chances could suffer if Musharraf made too many concessions.
Despite the uncertainty over the talks, the government says that on her return, Bhutto will not suffer the fate of Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister who was swiftly expelled when he came back from exile Monday. But officials said she would have to face pending corruption charges.
Bhutto, now 56, was only 35 when she became prime minister in 1988, the first female leader of a modern Muslim nation. She was elected to a second term in 1993.