Benazir Bhutto: Courageous Pakistani opposition leader who had twice served as her country's prime minister

Benazir Bhutto, politician: born Karachi 21 June 1953; Prime Minister of Pakistan 1988-90, 1993-96; married 1987 Asif Ali Zardari (one son, two daughters); died Rawalpindi, Pakistan 27 December 2007

Benazir Bhutto was often accused of courting martyrdom, and the manner and timing of her death will bestow the status of a martyr upon her. Like her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she was prime minister of Pakistan in her case, twice and it cost both their lives. Her violent death is likely to cause further bloodshed and instability in a country which is seen as the epicentre of the "war on terror".

There was no question that Bhutto knew the risks she was running by returning to Pakistan, after eight years in exile, to contest the election on 8 January. The day she arrived, on 19 October, she narrowly escaped assassination. Though she was warned that holding public rallies would endanger her supporters as well as her, she went ahead: the political dynasties so characteristic of south Asia thrive on public adulation.

"I didn't choose this life in Pakistan; it chose me," Benazir Bhutto wrote in her autobiography, Daughter of the East. She was born in 1953 into a wealthy political family in Sindh, the most feudal province in Pakistan, a background which gave her the imperious manner of a princess, and the assumption of privilege that went with it. During her childhood her father practised law in Karachi and served the military governments that have been more common than civilian rule since Pakistan's foundation in 1947, but turned himself into a Third World, Mao-quoting populist who founded the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and was jailed for five months in the late 1960s.

Her upbringing gave Benazir an entre into the highest circles of both East and West. Although she had two brothers (both of whom also died violently), she was her father's favourite, and met such guests at the family dinner table as Henry Kissinger and Chou en-Lai. When she went to Harvard at the age of 17, John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife acted as honorary parents, though in December 1971 she took time out to help her father, who had become Pakistan's foreign minister, when he went to the United Nations in an abortive attempt to prevent the breakaway of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. A few days later he became president of the rump Pakistan.

In 1973, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto attained the more powerful post of prime minister, his daughter moved to Oxford to continue her studies at Lady Margaret Hall. Benazir called her time at Oxford "the best years of my life". Not only was she a celebrity, she had blossomed into a beauty who whizzed around in a yellow sports car, went punting on the Cherwell and became President of the Union. Although her father had decreed that she would not wear the veil, like women of previous generations in her family, simply the dupatta shawl, she revelled in the freedom of Oxford, where she wore Western fashions and went bare-headed. In 1977 she prepared to return home to a post in the prime minister's office, after a farewell party in the grounds of Queen Elizabeth House that is still remembered by those who attended it.

At that point it appeared that Benazir Bhutto would hold important positions in Pakistan, but always as a consequence of being her father's daughter or, after some suitably grand match, as the wife of somebody influential. But her life was changed only eight days after her return, when the man Zulfikar Ali had chosen as military chief of staff, General Zia ul-Haq, deposed him and threw him into jail. For the next seven years she was detained, sometimes at home, but for 10 months in solitary confinement. Her father was dubiously convicted by a military court of the murder of a political opponent. On 3 April 1979, when a group of army officers arrived at the camp where she was being held and said her weekly visit to Zulfikar Ali had been brought forward, she guessed that his execution was imminent.

During the 30 minutes they had together, she said her father had passed his political mantle on to her. The next day he went to the gallows, and her life became dedicated to avenging his memory. When she was finally allowed to go into exile in 1984 she required five hours of surgery to correct the effects of an untreated ear infection, but she never gave up her intention to return home and seek to succeed her father.

She did so two years later, daring General Zia's increasingly authoritarian regime to imprison her or have her killed, addressing huge rallies about the martyrdom of her father and demanding an end to military rule. In 1988 the general died in a mid-air explosion which has never been fully explained, and the military called free elections, the first in a decade. Benazir was swept into power at the head of the PPP at the age of only 35, the first woman to be elected leader of a Muslim state.

In office Benazir Bhutto had to transform herself from a crusader into an effective prime minister, and by most standards she failed. It was as if she had achieved her birthright by attaining power, and saw no need to execute any particular set of policies. She appointed her Iranian-born mother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, to a cabinet post despite her lack of any qualifications for the position.

While Benazir's Western education made her adept at speaking of democracy and women's rights, her feudal background had more of a bearing on her manner of government. Little was done to alleviate Pakistan's appalling rates of illiteracy and child mortality; instead there was a pervasive atmosphere of corruption, in which her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, whom she married in 1987, was frequently implicated. The scion of a lesser feudal family who had done well in business, he was known during his wife's reign as "Mr 10 Per Cent" for the alleged amount of his rake-offs, though some claimed 30 per cent would have been more appropriate.

Bhutto was entitled to claim that her government was obstructed by vested interests in the civil service, anti-feminist conservatives and especially by her father's old enemies in the military. Nor was there any doubting her courage. In January 1990, when she was heavily pregnant and elements of the establishment were demanding that she step down temporarily until the baby was born, she secretly had her daughter Bakhtwar by Caesarean section and returned to work the following day. But when President Ghulam Ishaq Khan controversially dismissed her government in August 1990 for alleged corruption and a failure to control ethnic violence, her administration's lack of direction and internecine squabbling meant there was no popular uprising.

Bhutto lost the subsequent election fairly, it seems to her bitter rival, Nawaz Sharif, and her husband was jailed on corruption charges. When the president dismissed Sharif's government in its turn in 1993, he too was forced from office and fresh elections were held. Once again Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister, but there was little sign that she had learned the lessons of her first term. Her husband, freed from prison, was made environment minister, and was soon being accused once more of corruption. Such efforts as Sharif had made to reduce the size of government and its role in the economy fell by the wayside.

In later years Bhutto half acknowledged that Zardari was implicated in corruption and documents uncovered after her second fall from power, in Switzerland, Britain, Poland and France as well as Pakistan, raised awkward questions about both of them but she never wavered in her loyalty to her husband. Although the marriage was arranged, and many felt her family could have done considerably better, friends insisted it was a love match.

In 1996 she was dismissed from office a second time on corruption charges, and lost to Sharif a second time in elections the following year. Two years later, facing conviction on what she insisted were political charges, she again went into exile, this time spending most of her time in Dubai. With her husband once more being held on corruption charges he was finally freed on bail in 2004, having spent 11 years in prison without ever being convicted, and left the country her political career seemed finished.

The military coup which ousted Sharif and replaced him with General Pervez Musharraf did not appear to change that conclusion, and the events of September 2001 made it seem all the more certain. America, reeling from the 9/11 attacks, needed Musharraf as an ally to get at the perpetrators, al-Qa'ida and their Taliban hosts, in neighbouring Afghanistan. As a bulwark in the "war on terror" Musharraf seemed unchallengeable, but Bhutto never gave up campaigning, and as the new century grew older, circumstances began to move in her favour.

The mounting unpopularity of Musharraf's unelected regime has created ever more room for Islamist extremists to operate in Pakistan, to the point where it is threatening to become a worse threat than instability in Afghanistan. Musharraf's own attitude towards the militants has come to appear increasingly ambivalent. All this encouraged Britain and America to turn once more towards a woman who, whatever her other failings, could never be accused of sympathy for al-Qa'ida or its allies. With the encouragement of Washington and London, she agreed to take part in next month's election, which would have meant serving as prime minister under Musharraf if she won.

If such a deal appeared cynical, and the refusal of Nawaz Sharif to co-operate left her all the more exposed, there was no doubting the fervour with which she was received on her return. Benazir Bhutto was back where she belonged, in front of the crowds, the drabness of exile behind her. She had the choice, and she took the course that led to her death.

Raymond Whitaker

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