The PPP leader’s return to Pakistan heralds the return of democratic politics but sharpens political polarisation.
Is Benazir Bhutto the only leader in Pakistan with the common touch and the ability to draw people like a magnet, or is she just basking in her late father’s charisma? Should she be welcomed back as a leader who will restore democracy? Or is she a hypocrite in a military uniform under that salwar suit?
Can she take credit for President Pervez Musharraf’s if-and-but decision to step down as army chief through her negotiations with the regime? Or has she perpetuated military rule through a Washington-backed deal with a man who will remain in the army even out of uniform? Is the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) — the culmination of the Benazir-Musharraf deal — withdrawing corruption charges against Ms Bhutto morally indefensible? Or does the massive reception on her October 18 arrival in Pakistan indicate that she has been exonerated by the people’s court?
Should she have indulged in a show of strength with a procession of hundreds of thousands of people despite being aware of the security threats to her life and put so many lives at risk? Or was it her right as the leader of Pakistan’s largest political party to mobilise her supporters in that manner, and the government’s duty to ensure that nothing untoward happened?
Questions, questions and more questions. Pakistan remains as divided about Ms Bhutto’s return home after eight years of self-imposed exile, as it was before she came back.
There is some sympathy stemming from the fact that she was the intended target of the suicide attacks during her triumphant welcome parade that killed 139 people and left more than 500 wounded or maimed for life, turning celebration into carnage. There is also grudging respect over the fact that she was brave enough to return despite fears and warnings that powerful elements were plotting to kill her. But as yet, there is no outpouring of overwhelming support for her.
Feelings of love and hatred
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter have always inspired feelings of both deep love and deep hatred in Pakistanis. According to political analyst Shafqat Mahmood, it is no different this time — except that Ms Bhutto has added to the division by her trade-off with President Musharraf.
While her ability to mobilise the party faithful in large numbers, even after years of absence, has impressed critics, and the deadly attacks on her procession drew concern, these do not seem to have melted hearts.
Her perceived pro-American tilt, and her statements (which the Pakistan People’s Party says were misquoted) about giving the United Nations access to question A.Q. Khan or allowing the United States to carry out operations in the tribal areas, have prompted the “she had it coming to her”-type of statements and condemnation that she is to blame for the death of so many innocents.
Her opponents have panned the extraordinary numbers of people who turned out to welcome the PPP leader as being not a spontaneous gathering of supporters but the result of a painstaking mobilisation effort, involving millions of rupees. They draw the contrast with 1986, when people without any political affiliation turned out to hail the return of a Joan of Arc who would save Pakistan from a hated military dictator. This time around, the mobilisation is also credited to the scent of power blowing through the PPP owing to Ms Bhutto’s pact with President Musharraf. The government helped by not standing in the way as it did with the Pakistan Muslim League (N) when its leader Nawaz Sharif attempted to return on September 10.
On the other hand, her supporters believe that Ms Bhutto has nothing to be defensive about. With the mammoth procession, she has shown President Musharraf and the U.S. that she cannot be trifled with.
She may have a pact with Gen. Musharraf but she will not be his puppet. She demonstrated on arrival that she is the leader of the poorest and the downtrodden of Pakistan, its youth — most people in the procession were under 25 years — and if they turned out despite knowing the risk to their lives, it is because they identify with her party’s anti-extremist, anti-militant, and pro-liberal-secular standpoint. She has shown that despite her absence from the scene for eight years, and the party’s longer innings in opposition, the PPP’s organisational strength is something to be reckoned with.
Her supporters also maintain that Ms Bhutto, vilified for doing a deal with President Musharraf, has in truth outfoxed him. She made a pact with the General so that she could return without the fear of being arrested, and then maximised the opportunity by summoning a massive roadshow. In the process, she made it clear she would not adhere to a Musharraf-penned script. She further strayed from her lines by accusing Intelligence Bureau chief Brigadier (retd.) Ejaz Shah, a Musharraf confidant, of being behind the attacks on her.
Ms Bhutto’s diatribe against “three individuals” in the government/establishment has also alarmed those who believe her primary role is to provide a political cushion to President Musharraf in the U.S.-led “war on terror.” They are worried she is going off-message. The Daily Times, a staunch supporter of the Musharraf-Benazir pact as the panacea against extremism, advised that such posturing would jeopardise her relations with President Musharraf. The newspaper emphasised that the suicide attacks unmistakably bore the footprint of Al-Qaeda.
Others are goading her to break free now that she is here, telling her she is now powerful enough to chart her own course without making any more compromises with the military.
Writing in The News, columnist Imtiaz Alam said the carnage had given her more political space to alter the civil-military relations.
Strong stand against extremism
Ms Bhutto has already taken a strong position against Islamist extremism, and by cutting loose from President Musharraf she can provide people who are anti-West, anti-military but moderate and secular, a political alternative to the other opposition parties, many of which are religious conservatives, and some pro-jihadi.
But love her or hate her, most people are agreed that Ms Bhutto’s return heralds the end of what Rasul Baksh Rais, who teaches political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, describes as the “control and command politics” of General Musharraf, conducted through the ruling faction of the PML and the opposition right-wing Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition.
A new dynamic has been unleashed in the political sphere. The mobilisation by the PPP is bound to set off a race among other parties for similar shows, and those who do not have a real constituency are likely to stand exposed. Opposition politicians allege this is one reason the PML(Q) was quick to propose a ban on public rallies and processions, which opposition parties have said they will defy.
As the October 18 attacks showed, there are elements in Pakistan — whether these are Islamist militants or others — who will disrupt democratic mobilisation.
The PPP leader has made statements about the need for a national consensus to tackle militancy, extremism, and terrorism. She has called upon all political leaders and parties to unite to find a way out to prevent terrorists from disrupting the democratic mobilisation of people.
As the leader of the demonstrably largest political party, she is expected to take the lead in this. But critics and supporters alike are asking if Ms Bhutto, who has returned with such divisive baggage, has what it takes to create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation.
No one expected Ms Bhutto’s arrival to set off a process of grand national reconciliation. According to Dr. Rais, her style of politics is not geared to this.
By breaking off with the rest of the opposition and placing herself in a loose alliance with President Musharraf, she has ensured that the political polarisation will worsen over the coming weeks and months ahead of the elections. Her party’s exclusive talks with the Musharraf regime for a caretaker government in the lead-up to the talks have angered other opposition parties.
Her accusations against individuals in government have set off a war with the ruling faction of the Pakistan Muslim League. The Chaudharies who run the PML(Q) already hated her and feared that President Musharraf’s deal with her would marginalise them. They still hope to sabotage the pact.
But the Benazir-Musharraf understanding is more dependent on other factors, namely the upcoming Supreme Court judgment on the presidential election and its decision on the NRO.
The PPP’s performance in the elections will also be crucial, and the party is justified in stressing the absolute importance of free and fair elections. Mr. Sharif’s return — if he is allowed to come back before the elections — could also muddy Ms Bhutto’s road to the high table in Islamabad.
There is a near-unanimous view that if Ms Bhutto is serious about the need to create space for democratic politics through a national consensus, her first step should be to demand the early return of Mr. Sharif, despite the political uncertainties this will bring for her.
At her first press conference in Karachi after escaping the attempt on her life, many people noticed that Ms Bhutto listed the names of several dignitaries who called her to enquire about her safety, but left out Mr. Sharif, who was actually the very first caller. It may have been an unintentional lapse but it did not send out the right signal.