Benazir Bhutto’s Return from Exile
Weekly Pulse
October 19-25, 2007
People still remember the historic welcome that Benazir Bhutto received in Lahore on April 10, 1986 after returning from two years of political exile in Europe. The procession of people seemed endless. Thousands had spilled onto the Mall Road in Lahore, welcoming the daughter of the late Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and wishing she would help them gain freedom from the dictatorship of Ziaul Haq. Now she has made yet another historic comeback in Karachi from her second decade-long political exile.

From 1977 to 1984, Benazir spent most of her time under house arrest and the remaining time in various prisons around the country. It was only after she was released from prison in 1984 that she opted for an exiled life mostly in London. While in exile, Benazir tried to cultivate Western support, especially from US and British governments, but could not succeed as the West backed the military regime of Ziaul Haq due to its role in combating Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But fate was on her side. The August 1988 air crash killing Ziaul Haq opened the door for her party, the PPP, to win the elections held later that year.

Benazir Bhutto became the youngest Head of Government ever at the age of 35 and the first woman to lead a Muslim country in modern history. But she had won primarily on the strength of being the daughter of a former prime minister, yet she lacked the political experience her father possessed. The only two significant offices she had ever held before becoming Prime Minister were the Presidency of the Oxford Union Debating Society and the Chairmanship of the PPP.

Unlike the historic welcome of Lahore, her second return to Karachi from a much longer political exile in Dubai is marred with a couple of stigmas: Benazir’s two stints in power, the first one in 1988-90 and the second in 1993-96, were marked by rampant corruption and repressive practices. The alleged corruption by her husband Asif Ali Zardari, whom she had married in December 1986, continues to haunt her political career. She had an opportunity during the post-Zia transition to democracy in Pakistan to create her own political legacy. But not only Benazir failed to build her own legacy, even the legacy of her father that she represented was ruined because of corruption and repression characterizing her two stints in power.

Back in 1988, she had an opportunity to become a true democratic leader of Pakistan. But for the sake of capturing power, she made compromises with the Establishment, electing Ghulam Ishaq Khan with a power to dismiss the elected government with the help of Eighth Amendment, a draconian clause inserted in the 1973 Constitution by General Zia. Benazir hobnobbed with the Establishment once again in 1993 and captured power. Each time, however, her government was booted out by Presidents, the second time by a PPP stalwart Farooq Khan Leghari, invoking the Eighth Amendment.

The essential difference between Benazir Bhutto’s April 1986 historic return to Lahore and October 2007 comeback to Karachi from political exile abroad is that the former was followed by deal with the Establishment and the latter is preceded by a deal with the Establishment.

This time, Benazir’s controversial deal with President-General Pervez Musharraf seems to havehas cast a dark shadow over her democratic credentials. In public perception, the sole reason why Benazir has cut this deal is to remove charges of corruption against PPP leaders. The deal may have given political relief to General Musharraf, with the PPP indirectly helping in his re-election by merely abstaining from voting in the recent presidential election.

This grand compromise on Benazir’s part may benefit her personally in the shape of her re-election as Prime Minister for the third time, but this is not expected to institutionalize democratic governance in the country. Whatever justifications Benazir offers to cover up the compromises she has made with the Establishment once again are not going to be bought by people whose level of awareness about questionable deeds of leaders has gone several times up due to increased flow of information via the country’s vibrant print and electronic media.

The biggest proof of her current compromise with the Establishment is the so-called National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) that has legitimized corruption during her two stints in power. Yet in order to divert public attention from her real motives behind the deal, Benazir Bhutto continues to advance pro-democracy arguments to justify the deal.

For instance, she begins her Washington Post article, “When I Return to Pakistan” (September 20) by saying, “I am returning to Pakistan on Oct. 18 to bring change to my country. Pakistan's future viability, stability and security lie in empowering its people and building political institutions. My goal is to prove that the fundamental battle for the hearts and minds of a generation can be accomplished only under democracy.”

Concerning the deal, she writes, “I am aware that some in Pakistan have questioned the dialogue I have engaged in with Gen. Pervez Musharraf over the past several months. I held those discussions hoping that Musharraf would resign from the army and restore democracy…My goal in that dialogue has never been personal but was always to ensure that there be fair and free elections in Pakistan, to save democracy.” Contrary to what she says, even a cursory reading of the NRO would suggest that the deal has been principally motivated to remove the charges of corruption against her and those surrounding her in exile abroad.

Another main difference between her historic return to Lahore in 1986 and the present comeback to Karachi is that, unlike that previous case, the West, especially the United States, is fully backing her return to Pakistan. In fact, the deal between her and Musharraf has come about principally because of the American role, which is no more hidden. Probably that is why Benazir Bhutto’s entire discourse preceding to her Karachi return was targeted at winning American/western support for her becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan once again.

A couple of her reported statements are sufficient to prove how viciously she tried to cultivate American or Western support to realize her power ambition in Pakistan. In an interview with Nayan Chanda of Yale-Global, published on August 9, Benazir warned that, without a peaceful transfer of power, Pakistan might witness a Ukrainian-style Orange Revolution with a difference. The winner might not be the political parties demanding democracy, but Pakistan’s armed extremists.

“No one believed when the Shah of Iran was facing street riots that it will end up in an ayatollah revolution,” she said, while drawing historical parallel. In the same interview, Benazir said she wanted to return to Pakistan “for saving my country from a militant takeover, [and] God forbid, disintegration.”

In recent weeks, Benazir Bhutto has also given an undertaking to the Americans, however conditional, that she would allow US forces to attack al Qaeda leadership targets on Pakistani soil and give International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to the country’s nuclear scientist, AQ Khan—disregarding the fact that the two issues are quite sensitive insofar as public opinion of the country she wants to lead again is concerned.