Bhutto’s Life Represents the Struggle Between Pakistan’s People and the Establishment


Benazir Bhutto, the outstanding icon of Pakistan’s struggle for democracy is gone. For those who only saw her as a distant political figure, her human dimension clearly did not matter. That applies to those who vilified her throughout her life, those who failed to protect her and those who actually killed her. But for everyone whose life she touched, her humanity transcended the politics.

I was among those who got to know Benazir Bhutto, the person –a daughter scarred by the assassination of her father, a sister injured by the killing of her brothers, a wife hurt by the disparagement and imprisonment without conviction of her husband, and a mother who was robbed of the opportunity to see her children grown into adulthood. With all the verbal and physical abuse hurled at her, she remained amazingly loving and lovable. Her loss is a personal loss to me and millions of others who admired her. Her assassination also creates serious challenges for the integrity and future of Pakistan.

Beginning with Ziaul Haq’s decision to execute Pakistan first popularly elected leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan has witnessed a fundamental struggle between the country’s establishment, which rules with military backing, and populist forces led by the Bhutto family. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination is the latest twist in that conflict.

Like all great people, and political dynasties, the Bhuttos generate a lot of passion both for and against. In the days to come we will read and hear many facts, factoids and falsehoods about the strengths, weaknesses and paradoxes of Benazir Bhutto. To me these are merely the subtext. The headline is that the Pakistani establishment’s nemesis has been removed from the scene, ostensibly by terrorists who have flourished in establishment-dominated Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto was demonized by the civil-military oligarchy that has virtually run Pakistan since 1958, the year of Pakistan’s first military coup. But she retained a hard core of popular support, and her social-democratic Pakistan People’s Party is widely regarded as Pakistan’s largest political party. Pakistan’s civilian leaders of recent years (including Benazir Bhutto) get blamed for many things that are essentially the result of the establishment’s obsessions-with India, about Afghanistan and relations with the United States.

Benazir Bhutto had the combination of political brilliance, charisma, popular support and international recognition that made her a credible democratic alternative to Musharraf acceptable to the international community. Her elimination from the scene is not only a personal loss to millions of Pakistanis who loved and admired her. It exposes Pakistan’s nation’s vulnerability, and the urgent need to deal with it.

Bhutto’s assassination could be a setback to populist-democratic forces. But it also has the potential to mobilize strong backlash against the militarist and overly centralized paradigm of the Pakistani state. Getting through elections that his Kings Party would almost certainly lose if they were fair is not the only challenge facing Musharraf right now. With the help and support of the military, he can weather any immediate challenge to his authority. But Bhutto’s murder adds to Musharraf’s legitimacy problems.

Bhutto’s assassination highlights the fears about Pakistan that she voiced over the last several months. Years of dictatorship and sponsorship of Islamist extremism have made this nuclear-armed Muslim nation of 160 million people a safe haven for terrorists that threaten the world. Bhutto had the courage and vision to challenge both terrorism and the authoritarian culture that nurtured it. Her assassination has already exacerbated Pakistan’s instability and uncertainty.

Riots have erupted in several parts of the country as grief has fanned anger against a government that is deeply unpopular. People in Pakistan’s smaller provinces, Sindh and Balochistan, are particularly aggrieved and angered. Like her father before her, she was a leader from Sindh with national appeal. That she met a tragic end without much protection or comfort from the country’s ruling elite heightens the isolation of Sindhis and Balochis.

Barely two years ago, a missile attack by security forces killed octogenarian Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti. The circumstances of Bhutto’s death -assassination by a terrorist -may be different but the net result is the same: systematic elimination of nationally recognized anti-establishment political leaders with strong constituencies.

The tragedy of December 27 may have been the work of a terrorist but for Bhutto’s supporters, the government is not without blame. Musharraf refused to accept Bhutto’s requests for an investigation in the earlier attempt on her life on October 18, assisted by the FBI or Scotland Yard, both of which have greater competence in analyzing forensic evidence than Pakistan’s notoriously corrupt and incompetent law enforcement. The circumstances of the first assassination attempt remain mired in mystery as has often been the case with murders of Pakistan’s high profile political personalities.

Television images soon after Bhutto’s assassination showed fire engines hosing down the crime scene, in what can only be considered a calculated washing away of forensic evidence. Bhutto had publicly expressed fears that pro-extremist elements within Pakistan’s security services were complicit in plans to eliminate her. Instead of addressing those fears, Musharraf cynically rejected Bhutto’s request for international security consultants to be hired at her own expense.

This cynicism on the part of the Pakistani authorities is now causing most of Bhutto’s supporters to vent anger against the Musharraf regime for her tragic death. One cannot understand why a regime that has not hesitated to compromise national sovereignty in its conduct of foreign policy insists on invoking the sovereignty argument in resisting an international investigation of a vicious crime it says it condemns.

The United States might not be willing, at this stage, to review its policy of trusting the military-dominated regime led by Pervez Musharraf to secure and stabilize Pakistan. But as Musharraf becomes less and less credible in the eyes of his own people, it might have to. The U.S. would come under pressure of international opinion to use its influence, acquired with more than $10 billion in economic and military aid, to persuade Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment to loosen its grip on power and negotiate with politicians with popular support, most prominently Bhutto’s successors in her Pakistan People’s Party as well as the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) leader Nawaz Sharif. Instead of calibrating terrorism, as Musharraf appears to have done, Pakistan must work towards eliminating terrorism, as Bhutto demanded.

Now that the PPP and PML-N have agreed to participate in the polls, parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8 should not be delayed. The plans for poll rigging already in place for the benefit of the Kings Party, PML-Q should be shelved to ensure that a rigged poll does not become the instigator of a new round of street violence. Musharraf has ruled alone for long enough. He should not put the country’s stability and prosperity in jeopardy by continuing with the political juggling that has kept him strong so far while making Pakistan weak.

There is no way the PPP will now lose the election, given the strong sympathy wave resulting from Mohtarma’s assassination. It led in opinion polls, followed by Sharif’s PML-N even before. Cooperation between PML-N and the PPP, as well as other opposition parties, offers an opportunity to turn national sorrow into national unity. The establishment could hold on to power by use of force but that would only harm an already brittle nation further.

In her death, as in her life, Benazir Bhutto has drawn attention to the need for building a moderate Muslim democracy in Pakistan that cares for its people and allows them to elect its leaders. The war against terrorism, she repeatedly argued, cannot be won without mobilizing the people of Pakistan against violent extremists, and bringing Pakistan’s security services under civilian control. Indeed the federation cannot be kept together except through the will and commitment of its people.

Husain Haqqani, a professor at Boston University, is Co-Chair of the Hudson Institute’s Project on Islam and Democracy. He is the author of the Carnegie Endowment book ‘Pakistan Between Mosque and Military’ and served as an adviser to Ms Bhutto.