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Pakistan's Bhutto Besieged by Political Jabs, Rising Violence

The political woes of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto may come to a peak this Sunday when the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League, plans a massive street protest.

Such a public display, to be held in the northern city of Peshawar, reflects a national malaise in this South Asia nation. Many Pakistanis remain convinced that its successive governments can easily become hostage to crisis. During the eight years since the 1988 death of General Zia ul-Haq, the last military ruler, there have been seven changes of government.

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Mrs. Bhutto's woes have intensified with sharp accusations of corruption by Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif. He claims Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, acquired a palatial estate outside of London with money earned through corrupt business deals.

Government denials include one recently published statement by Bhutto, in which she said, "My adversaries continue to make totally unsubstantiated and wild charges of corruption against my party, my government and my family." Instead, she calls on the opposition to discuss national issues, such as political reform, an offer that Mr. Sharif refuses. In 1990, Sharif became the first industrialist to become prime minister, but he resigned in 1993 after a power struggle with then-President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.

Beyond the charges against Bhutto, concern has intensified over security and political issues. "If [she] would have managed government well, we wouldn't have had a case," says Abida Hussain, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States and now an opposition leader.

Critics accuse the government of moving rapidly to force out Pakistan's one and only opposition-backed provincial government, which was formed after elections in 1993 when Bhutto became prime minister. The opposition government in the Northwest-Frontier province was removed amid charges that members of parliament were pressured by Bhutto's officials to change loyalties.

More recently, Bhutto has been locked in a dispute with the country's superior judiciary over the question of who appoints judges to the supreme court and the four high courts in the provinces. The supreme court in a landmark judgment last year ruled that no judicial appointments can take place without consultation with the chief justices of the supreme and the high courts. Since then, Bhutto and other government leaders have criticized the judiciary.

Other concerns relate to recent killings of Shiite and Sunni Muslims, the country's two main Islamic sects. In two of the worst recent incidents, at least 27 people were killed. The two incidents followed a recent upsurge in religious violence, such the killing of four prominent Shiites, including a senior bureaucrat and a leading poet.

Bhutto has promised a crackdown on such violence but has stopped short of banning the groups involved. Critics charge that the government's ability to deal with the problem has been undermined because of its failure to take firm action.

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Bhutto's problems also include antagonizing businesses with a new tax hike. The government has since lowered some tax rates but raised worries over future relations with the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, which wants the government to improve tax revenues.

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