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Michael Fathers: Bhutto's flaws in office cannot diminish her greatness, or the extent of Pakistan's loss

Violence, assassination and murder have followed the Bhutto family like furies throughout the 40-year history of Pakistan. Every member of the family who has shown any political ambition and entered public life has been killed violently. The one exception was Begum Nusrat Bhutto, Benazir's mother who, for a brief time during one of Benazir's several exiles, was the figurehead president of the family's Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

The violence began three decades ago when her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first Prime Minister to have won power in what was perhaps Pakistan's only free and fair election since the creation of the country, was toppled in a military-led coup in 1977. He was hanged a year later as a common criminal after a majority of appeal court judges confirmed his conviction for conspiracy to murder a political opponent.

Bhutto's youngest child, Shahnawaz, was poisoned at the age of 27 in his apartment on the Cote d'Azur in 1986 after a family reunion when all the family were exiled from Pakistan. Ten years later in 1996, the eldest son, Murtaza, was shot dead at the age of 42 in a police ambush in Karachi. Eleven years later, on 27 December 2007, Benazir, the first-born in the family, was herself murdered by a terrorist bomb.

There is only one surviving child of the family of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and that is Benazir's younger sister, Sanam. She was 19 when her father was judicially murdered. Traumatised and alone, while her mother and sister were held separately under house arrest, and while her brothers were in exile and out of contact, she hid from politics and vowed never to become involved in what was considered the family's feudal destiny.

Politics has been a tragedy for the Bhuttos and in many ways for Pakistan. The tragedy for the family was that the PPP, the radical by Pakistani standards semi-socialist political party which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded in the 1960s to replace military rule, became a family fiefdom. Despite the Bhutto family's commitment to democracy, they would not let go the reins of a party they saw as its own. There were never any elections within the PPP. Benazir was party president for life. She chose and appointed the party's officials and expected them to do as she told them and, if they failed to whip up support and huge rallies, their jobs were on the line.

The tragedy for Pakistan was that, since 1947, corruption and personal gain took hold in a country divided between feudal landlords, peasants, immigrants and displaced intellectuals, with few roots to democracy. The swing-door of civilian government and military rule that followed independence destroyed the country and its institutions. The door is open and waiting for any demagogue, religious or secular, who will choose the right time to step forward. Today, military rule has been discredited by General Musharraf. Tomorrow who? A cross between Mullah Omar and Joseph Stalin, perhaps. Two ruthless extremists who loved their country.

The Bhuttos, and Benazir in particular, must take a lot of the blame for the fate of Pakistan. Benazir had a pot-pourri mind. Her ideas were drawn in from every point of the compass. She was tough, quite fearsome, but also whimperingly sentimental. She once cried out in alarm, put her hands over her eyes and asked her friend not to when he stopped his car and jumped out to ring the neck of a rabbit he had run down in the headlights.

She called herself a daughter of the East, yet she was educated at two of the most important centres of Western learning, Oxford and Harvard. She was determined to be president of the Oxford Union and some might say learned her first political skills there from the amount of money she spent on her first unsuccessful, and then successful, campaign.

Her closest friends were from Britain and the United States. Her friends in Pakistan tended to be adoring sycophants, or they were pushed aside. She sought out the cleverest and most influential people wherever she was and built up a network of contacts to the highest level. She was ruthless, and amazingly girlish. When friends from Oxford visited the Bhutto family home in Karachi while her father was Prime Minister she told them immediately that they were not to kiss her or brush her cheek ever, publicly or in private. At the same time, she would casually comment that her brother Murtaza was keeping a Christian girl as his mistress in a separate pavilion in the family compound, and expect her visitors to giggle with her.

In 1987, the setting for her engagement to marry was in London, not in Pakistan. She was to enter an arranged marriage with Asif Zardari, a minor businessman whose family owned a cinema. It was an unlikely mix the eldest and famous daughter of one of Sindh province's oldest and most important families, and a little known and undistinguished man. She told a London friend at the time that she found it impossible to imagine going to bed with someone with such a silly moustache.

In terms of intellect and influence, it also seemed a mismatch. But the relationship developed into one of deep affection on her part, while it gave him access to power and wealth. One year after the marriage, she scored her greatest political triumph and was elected Prime Minister in 1988. When things went wrong politically, her friends blamed her husband.

When stories of corruption in her two governments became difficult to disbelieve, they blamed her husband, who was known then as Mr Ten Percent. Evidence, however, was emerging that she too had her hand in the till. She was forced to leave Pakistan to avoid embezzlement charges. They were later dropped under an amnesty when she returned this year, but anti-corruption cases against her remained in Europe. By the time of her death, she and her husband were living apart, he in the US, and she once more back in Pakistan.

For all the sleaze, vindictiveness, arrogance and corruption that marked her in government; for all her gush and fawning of the foreign media, her incompetence as a leader of government and her very strong dictatorial tendencies, she was nonetheless a powerful symbol of unbending strength against tyranny. The choice was clear, military rule or democracy. She stood for democracy and she hated military rule, although at her death she was prepared to compromise.

From 1978 through the 10 oppressive years of General Zia ul-Haq's military/Islamic rule and persecution, she stood alone. Whether isolated and under house arrest, or in exile and abroad, she lived for her country. No one else had the courage to stand up to usurpers and the politicians they plucked from obscurity to help them.

And it is for this reason, despite her clear failure in office, that she was a great woman at a time of darkness in Pakistan. For this, she should be remembered.

The author is a former Asia editor of 'The Independent'