Benazir Will Be Back

Gulf News, January 17, 2007

Pakistan’s Opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has made it clear that she will return to Pakistan in time for the 2007 elections and that her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) would not accept any deal with the present government that allows General Pervez Musharraf to retain his military uniform. “The raison d’etre of the PPP is to end military rule, not to perpetuate it,” Bhutto recently told this columnist.

Given the PPP’s long history of opposition to military rule and the sacrifices of Bhutto and her family for the restoration of democracy, this categorical stance should surprise no one. Bhutto’s return to Pakistan will likely lead to massive mobilisation against military rule, much like her 1986 return from exile marked the beginning of the end for General Zia-ul Haq’s entrenched military regime.

The rumours of an impending deal between the PPP and Musharraf have been periodically spread by the Pakistani establishment and denied by the PPP. These rumours served the purpose of confusing and dividing the opposition, in addition to making Musharraf look invulnerable. The persistence of these rumours was partly a reflection of the establishment’s effective media manipulation and partly a manifestation of the willingness of some elite Pakistanis to believe the worst about the PPP and the Bhuttos.

Pakistan’s elite loves to hate the Bhutto family. Before Bhutto’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, founded the PPP in 1967, Pakistan’s politics were confined to the drawing rooms of Karachi and Lahore.

He brought the unwashed masses of present-day Pakistan into the political equation, a “sin” for which he has not been forgiven by the country’s oligarchy of senior military officers, civil servants, international bankers, industrialists, major landowners and multinational corporation executives.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and for that matter the PPP and other members of his family, were not perfect and much can be (and is) said about their mistakes, especially while in power. But the fact remains that the real reason for the Pakistani establishment’s resentments towards the Bhuttos and the PPP has little to do with their real and perceived flaws.

Major challenge

Since General Zia-ul Haq deposed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a military coup in 1977, the establishment has recognised the Bhutto name and the PPP as the major challenge to the establishment’s dominance of Pakistan. After executing Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in what is now universally recognised as a show trial, Zia-ul Haq initiated a major campaign of demonisation against the PPP and the Bhuttos.

Zia-ul Haq’s successors continued the vilification of the Bhutto family and persisted with efforts to divide and break the PPP. Benazir Bhutto’s two terms in office were cut short by establishment-orchestrated dismissals from power. She lost both her brothers to assassinations under mysterious circumstances that are still unresolved. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, has been a target of particular disparagement. He was first imprisoned from 1990 to 1993 on corruption charges, only to be released without being convicted in any of the 18 cases brought against him. Not learning any lessons from the failed prosecutions of 1990-93, Zardari was imprisoned again in 1996, only to be released eight-and-a-half years later on bail. None of the charges against him has yet been proven and Zardari is quite confident that his persecutors will end up with egg on their faces once again.

Since assuming power in a coup d’etat in 1999, Musharraf has tried to use the prosecutions against Zardari as a bargaining tool to seek the PPP’s cooperation. But having paid the high price in personal suffering, it is clear that Benazir Bhutto will not accept Musharraf’s uniform in return for the withdrawal of cases against herself and Zardari.

It seems that the people of Pakistan are willing to give Benazir Bhutto and the PPP another chance because they have never been given the opportunity to vote out the party after voting it into office. For once, the Pakistani establishment should give the people of Pakistan a free choice in selecting their leaders.