Benazir Bhutto: Pakistan's former prime minister has risen again

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The Independent Online

In January 1990, heavily pregnant and with her political opponents demanding an interim government be installed while she got on with having her baby, Benazir Bhutto took decisive action. Certain her opponents would use to opportunity to oust her from power, the prime minister of Pakistan travelled incognito to hospital in Karachi and, having consulted with her doctor, underwent a Caesarean section to deliver a baby girl named Bakhtwar. While her bodyguard handed out traditional sweets to well-wishers at the hospital, Bhutto's thoughts quickly returned to her political survival.

"The next day I was back on the job, reading government papers and signing government files," she later wrote. "Only later did I learn that I was the only head of government in recorded history actually to give birth while in office. It was a defining moment, especially for young women, proving that a woman could work and have a baby in the highest and most challenging leadership positions."

On that occasion, Bhutto's quick-thinking earned her only another eight months in office, her government being dismissed by Pakistan's president later that year amid claims of corruption. But the determination and resourcefulness displayed in that episode 17 years ago say a great deal about the person who is now seeking a third term as the country's prime minister and who is apparently willing to do almost anything to secure that goal.

This week in a series of interviews Bhutto claimed that she and General Pervez Musharraf, the country's military leader who seized power in a 1999 coup, had all but finalised a power-sharing agreement that would see the general continue as president for five years while allowing her to serve as premier. Crucially Bhutto claimed Musharraf had agreed as part of the deal that he would step down as head of the armed forces and serve as a civilian.

The ramifications of the deal are huge. With the backing of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the beleaguered Musharraf might have enough support to dominate the regional and national assemblies that are due to face elections in a few weeks and then, later this year, vote to approve a president. For Musharraf, facing pressure from all sides and with public support in the country slipping, it may present him with a way of forcing a square peg into a round hole.

There is little wonder why Musharraf would be keen to accept the deal. Since earlier this year, when his efforts to oust the chief justice of the country's supreme court spectacularly backfired, the army chief has been trying to prevent his support from seeping. The ousted judge, Iftakar Muhammad Choudhary, emerged as a rallying point for the disparate elements of the opposition, and soon tens of thousands of people were turning out just to see this previously anonymous figure's convoy pass.

In addition, since the Lal Masjid incident this summer when more than 100 people were killed when Pakistani commandos stormed a radical mosque in the centre of Islamabad, there has been an extremist backlash. Scores of troops and police have been killed in bombings and shooting, often in the north-west of the country.

Keen to cement political support, Musharraf has had dealings with Bhutto. One meeting took place in Abu Dhabi in July but it is believed that the pair may have met previously, also in the UAE, for a face-to-face meeting on 24 January. Neither side will confirm the meetings publicly and Musharraf's aides in the past few days have denied that any deal has been agreed.

What is clear is that 54-year-old Bhutto believes Musharraf – a man whose military rule she has consistently railed against from her exile in London and Dubai – is her best chance of securing a third term as premier. She told reporters this week that their deal was 80 per cent done and that she believed the remaining issues would be dealt with shortly. "Eighty to 90 per cent of the issues have been settled. Ten to 20 per cent have yet to be decided," she said.

Whatever this backroom deal may say about the state of political debate in Pakistan and the apparent disdain the country's political leaders hold for the electorate, many observers believe that in her ambition to return to Pakistan and once again lead the country, Bhutto may have made a serious error.

Her tactics appeared all the more questionable after the supreme court ruled recently that another former prime minister living in exile, Nawaz Sharif, had the right to return to the country from London, having been ousted in the 1999 coup by Musharraf. Sharif has now made clear that he too intends to challenge for the country's leadership and will try to stop Musharraf from securing another term. He has even set a date for his return to the country – 10 September – an event that is sure to add to the political maelstrom.

Sharif's return could do two things. First it could strip away supporters of Musharraf's PML-Q party, many of whom he recruited from Sharif's own PML-N party after the coup. Secondly it could expose Bhutto to accusations of hypocrisy and betrayal. So long in exile, has she misread the mood of the Pakistani street?

In some respects, and despite her two election successes, Bhutto has always been somewhat removed from that "street". The eldest daughter of deposed Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto was born into a feudal, political family from Sindh state, of which Karachi is the capital.

Her education into the deadly nature of Pakistani politics could barely have been more brutal. She was educated at Harvard and later Oxford, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics and was elected president of the Oxford Union. A friend from those days, Victoria Schofield, was quoted as saying: "She wasn't someone who was buried away in a library. She used to go socialising; she had a lot of friends, and in later years it was those friendships she thought back to, because it was a very happy period for her."

But such joy was to be short-lived. In 1977 her father was deposed and two years after that he was tried and hanged and Benazir was placed under house arrest. Five long years later she returned to Britain – a hero of the left and figures such as Robin Cook and George Galloway – where she assumed in exile the leadership of her father's party. It was also while she was in London that Bhutto's brother, Shahnawaz, was found dead in suspicious circumstances in his Paris flat. (Another brother, Murtaza, was shot dead in 1996 in equally suspicious circumstances.)

In 1986, and to cheering crowds said to be one million strong in Lahore, Bhutto returned to Pakistan. Two years later, following the death of the country's military leader General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Bhutto won the first open election in more than a decade. Young and glamorous, the then 35-year-old became the youngest person and the first woman to head the government of a Muslim country.

Bhutto served two short terms as prime minister. Many observers believe that she achieved little of lasting benefit for Pakistan during those years, though they also acknowledge she faced enormous challenges. But one thing that has never left Bhutto – or her husband Asif Zadari whom she wedded in an arranged marriage – has been a shadow cast by accusations of corruption.

Though she and her husband, who acquired the nickname "Mr 10 Per Cent" for the alleged kickbacks he demanded on government deals, have persistently denied the claims, there are many who question how they acquired their wealth. Bhutto has said that the accusations are politically motivated, which may be in part be true. But what can be said is that several corruption investigations, not just in Pakistan but in Switzerland, Poland, the UK and France, have uncovered documents and other evidence that raises awkward questions for Bhutto and her husband to answer. A number of legal actions remain open.

That Bhutto has managed to rise again to a position where she is challenging for power is no doubt partly a result of her charm and her perceptive identification of her audience. She can portray herself as the modern secularist fighting for women's rights, yet in office she did little to confront Pakistan's religious extremists.

In person she is charming, though her aides know her to be irascible and fiery at times. Sometimes she will interrupt herself to turn to her interrogator and ask, "What do you think I should be doing?" And during her interviews she works hard to remain on message, carefully calibrating her language and themes. She will seamlessly manage to tell a right-wing British newspaper of her fondness for Mrs Thatcher, the Indian media about her support for peace talks, and the American press of her loathing of fundamentalists. Like Mrs Thatcher, she often resorts to the use of the royal "we", though whether she is referring to herself, her party or the people of Pakistan is not always clear.

These are turbulent times in Pakistan. Elections for the national and regional assemblies are due to held in weeks, while an election for the presidency is due to held before the end of the year. In 2002, elections for the national assembly Bhutto's PPP received the highest number of votes – an indication of the strength that the party created by her father still has. That same year Musharraf introduced a constitutional amendment that banned anyone serving three terms as prime minister – a direct attempt to undermine both Bhutto and Sharif.

Yet if he and Bhutto were to strike a deal, lifting that amendment would surely be one of her key demands. With that removed the way would be open for Benazir Bhutto to make history. Once again.

A Life in Brief

BORN: 21 June 1953, Karachi, eldest daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan

FAMILY: Married Asif Zadari 1987; three children, Bilawal, Bakhtwar and Aseefa.

EDUCATION: Entered Harvard aged 16, then attended Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. President of Oxford Union. Degree in political science.

CAREER: Returned to Pakistan in 1977 and became an adviser to her father. Became the leader of the PPP (Pakistan People's Party) after her father's death. Spent the next seven years in exile or under house arrest. In 1986 returned to Pakistan and was prime minister (1988-90) when her party was dismissed on corruption charges. Was prime minister for a second time (1993-96) when corruption charges brought her down.

SHE SAYS: "You can imprison a man, but not an idea. You can exile a man, but not an idea. You can kill a man, but not an idea."

THEY SAY: "One of the most incompetent leaders in the history of South Asia." US historian Arthur Herman

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