Storybook queen without a crown tries for happy ending: Fate of Pakistan depends on whether Bhutto has learnt from past mistakes

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The Independent Online
NOW THAT Benazir Bhutto has secured the most votes in Wednesday's elections, and will probably become prime minister, she must decide whether to govern Pakistan as a feudal queen or as a democrat.

During a campaign swing through the parched countryside of southern Pakistan, villagers offered her a golden crown, which she refused. In many ways, she is a storybook queen: a fiery, black-haired beauty who saw her father hanged by an evil tyrant, endured long years of prison and then exile, until she returned home in triumph after the tyrant's aircraft was mysteriously blown out of the sky. In 1988, Ms Bhutto came to rule Pakistan, as she believed was her right. It should have been a happy-ever-after ending. But it wasn't.

Through arrogance, indecision, and a tendency to reward sycophants while punishing those who disagreed with her, Ms Bhutto blundered into a fatal quarrel with the army generals and the then president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan. She was sacked. During her 20 months as prime minister, Ms Bhutto's party followers, men who had also suffered jail and torture during martial law, acted like a vengeful army bent on conquest, snatching jobs, contracts, land and bribes while they could.

Many Pakistanis are now asking: has Ms Bhutto learnt from her mistakes, or is she condemned to repeat them?

If she has learnt, Ms Bhutto could, as she claimed yesterday, 'be comfortably placed to provide a stable government'. If she hasn't, Pakistan within several months may implode into political chaos, obliging the army once again to seize power.

It is reassuring that when the golden crown was offered in Sindh, she turned it down. Ms Bhutto may also be forced to tone down her imperious ways. Her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) won only 86 seats out of 217 in the National Assembly, so she must humbly seek supporters among the regional parties, the splinter groups and the independents.

A PPP spokesman, Bashir Riaz, said yesterday that Ms Bhutto has backing from the breakway faction of the Pakistan Muslim League led by Hamid Chatta, which will bring in another eight seats. Some of the tribal chieftains will also side with her, as will nine assemblymen representing Pakistan's Christians and other religious minorities. In all, she may scrape together a majority and on 19 October take over again as prime minister.

Ms Bhutto has a chameleon's adaptability. She changed from an Oxford-educated, Chanel-clothed socialist to become the first woman prime minister of a Muslim country. Her ideas have moved on, too. She has shifted from the left to the centre. She also recognises Islam's sway over her 120 million people. As new prime minister, she will forge ahead with the economic reforms and the privatisations of banks and industries begun by the caretaker prime minister, Moeen Qureshi.

She is perceived in the West as user-friendly. 'My objective is to end Pakistan's growing isolation in the world,' she said yesterday. Until the political crisis leading up to the poll, the Clinton administration had blocked weapons sales to Pakistan and was poised to put it on the list of states sponsoring terrorism. Many Muslim extremists were using Pakistan as a sanctuary and training-ground. Also, the West was alarmed at Pakistan's nuclear-weapons programme.

Ms Bhutto is bound to crack down on the Islamic extremists but it is doubtful that she can, or would want, to stop her army from building bombs. Only if India dismantled its nuclear arsenal would Pakistan's military be persuaded to do likewise.

Ms Bhutto's downfall last time was also due to her arch-rival, Nawaz Sharif, and he may try to foil her again. He is still trying to beat Ms Bhutto to the prime minister's job. His conservative Pakistan Muslim League got 72 assembly seats, and Mr Sharif is trying to woo the smaller parties away from her. 'He's way behind in the race,' Ms Bhutto said confidently. 'There's no way he can catch up.'

More likely is that Mr Sharif may lay siege to Ms Bhutto's next central government from the outside. Pakistanis are returning today to the polls for the provincial assembly elections and Mr Sharif's Muslim League is expected to sweep the populous state of Punjab. And, with an ally, the Muhajir Qaumi Movement, Mr Sharif might also capture Sindh. In Pakistan, the four provinces - Punjab, Baluchistan, Sindh, and the NorthWest Frontier - have great autonomy from Islamabad. If he controls Punjab and Sindh, Mr Sharif can easily stir up trouble. However, Mr Sharif no longer has the army and the President on his side, and Ms Bhutto has made her peace with the army. But if Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif continue their blood feuds, the army might again be forced to intervene.