THE LONG-RUNNING grudge match between the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto entered a new and perhaps terminal phase this week when the latter boarded an aircraft in London but got off not in Pakistan but in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
A little over two weeks ago the Lahore High Court found Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, guilty of corruption and sentenced each to five years in jail and a fine of pounds 5.3m. On conviction, Bhutto was automatically relieved of her job as an MP, and the court stipulated that both of them should be barred from office while serving their sentences.
When the sentence was passed, Bhutto was staying with a sister in London, and it was airily predicted that she would return to Pakistan within a couple of days. But Bibi, as she is known, has proved more cautious: had she gone back she would have been arrested. She extended her stay in the United Kingdom, returning to the region only on Wednesday. And when she alighted in Dubai, for a stay, according to her spokesman, of two weeks, the air was suddenly thick with talk of exile.
Benazir Bhutto's closest living relatives already live in Dubai: her aged mother and her three children, aged between six and eleven. She settled them there because she feared they would be in danger in Pakistan.
Bhutto knows plenty about self-imposed exile. After the military strongman Zia-ul Haq had her father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, hanged in 1979, she fled to the UK. When she returned in 1986, a million supporters thronged the streets of Lahore to welcome her.
Twice that great wave of support made her prime minister, but each time she was deposed midway through her first term for misgovernment and corruption. In the process, nearly all that sympathy was dissipated. Few Pakistanis doubt that the Accountability Bureau, which drew up the charges against the couple, is inherently partisan and obedient to the wishes of Mr Sharif. Yet it is hard now to find people outside her circle of loyal retainers who mourn her passing from the political scene.
When the convictions and sentences were announced, Pakistanis responded with a show of massive indifference; likewise when Bhutto announced that she would appeal to the Supreme Court. Even in Karachi, capital of the Bhuttos' home state of Sind, barely 1,000 people gathered to protest.
Rightly or wrongly, the Pakistani public seems to have decided that Benazir Bhutto abused high office beyond the point of redemption. More sophisticated voices remember her liberalism and secularism, the quiet encouragement she gave to those fighting religious bigotry. But the Pakistani on the street remembers her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, in jail now for more than two years on a charge of murdering Benazir's estranged brother, Murtaza.
During her terms in office, Zardari became notorious for allegedly skimming large percentages from foreign companies aiming to invest in Pakistan. Bhutto attempted to distance herself from his activities when she was prime minister, saying in an interview with The Independent that he had "paid a heavy price" for the mistakes he made. But she has remained loyal to him, and the judgement of many is that they were both as bad as each other.
The end of the dynasty may be nigh - for now.
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