Middle East

Benazir Bhutto's Political Future

The murdered former leader may help Pakistani democracy more in death than in life.


Shakespeare famously wrote in connection with the assassination of the great Roman emperor Julius Caesar: "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones." The exact opposite might turn out to be the case with Benazir Bhutto. She was an exceedingly flawed figure whose death, ironically, might contribute more toward her goal of turning Pakistan into a secular democracy than her life.

There is little doubt that under President Pervez Musharraf, the military general who assumed power in a bloodless coup in 1999, Pakistan has become both less secular and less democratic. His support for the U.S. in its battle against Islamic terrorism has become a huge obstacle to secularism in Pakistan. It has antagonized Islamic fundamentalists and he largely acquiesced to their demands—even ceding territory to them in the northwest frontier provinces—to prevent them from destabilizing his regime. At the same time, he has resorted to ever more draconian tactics to suppress dissidents—such as the chief justice of Pakistan and lawyers' groups—who have questioned his political legitimacy. All while cashing in mountains of U.S. dollars in post-9/11 aid. These moves have deeply antagonized Pakistan's moderate and urban intelligentsia and fuelled widespread anti-American sentiment. More to the point, it has made it more difficult for Pakistan to reverse course and move toward democracy.

The great hope both in Pakistan and the U.S. was that Bhutto, as the leader of the closest thing to a genuinely liberal party in the country, the Pakistani People's Party (PPP), would unify Pakistan's secular forces ahead of the January elections and then win a voter mandate to beat back religious fundamentalists not just in mosques but in the nation's intelligence and armed services.

This was not a baseless hope. A former prime minister, Bhutto was a charismatic and courageous figure who, despite having spent the last eight years in exile in England, retained a strong following in Pakistan. Educated in the West, she was the only candidate in the upcoming elections who was making the case for fighting radical Islam—not in the name of a more moderate religion, but of the rule of law. Her pledge to respect the country's constitution, restore the separation of powers, and protect the political rights of ordinary citizens was a central part of her platform.

But articulating the case for a secular democracy is not sufficient for actually producing one. It requires political leaders of the right timber. And, it is doubtful that, in the end, Bhutto had what it takes. Indeed, the biggest obstacles to the creation of functioning democratic institutions in Pakistan, as in other emerging nations, are corruption and ambition. Bhutto had both, in abundance.

Her two stints as prime minister from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996 were corrupt even by Pakistani standards. She made her husband a cabinet minister and gave him free rein to use his position to bequeath favors on businesses for kick-backs, a practice that earned him the sobriquet of "Mr. 10 percent." Both times her administration collapsed amidst corruption scandals, which did much to pave the way for a takeover by Musharraf, who justified his dictatorial rule as necessary to clean house.

But Bhutto's overweening ambition was potentially even more of an obstacle to democracy than her corruption. She belonged to the political equivalent of the Rockefeller family. As the oldest and most brilliant of the four children of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a flamboyant and populist prime minister who was hanged by his successor, she sincerely believed that she was the only legitimate heir to her father's political legacy. She bickered bitterly with her brothers and her mother over the leadership of the PPP, the party founded by her father. One of her brothers, who challenged her role in the party, was gunned down by the police outside his home while she occupied the prime minister's office. Soon after, she summarily deposed her mother as the president of the PPP and gave herself the position for life. "I had no idea I had nourished a viper in my breast," her mother wailed at the time. If Bhutto could not set aside her ambition for the well-being of her family, it is doubtful that she would have done so for the sake of democracy in Pakistan.

Yet her death might contribute more to that end than if she had actually won a third term. The perception that she martyred herself to rid the country of its jihadist reactionaries will force moderately religious opponents to at least pay lip service to her secularist convictions. Al Qaeda's possible involvement in her assassination will discredit Islamist parties that are already viewed as little more than fronts for extremist groups.

Equally important, her assassination will produce some unique and powerful benefits for her party that will greatly help the democratic process in Pakistan. The PPP will get a huge sympathy vote in the next election (even as it moved to contest their timing this weekend). More crucially, however, her murder allows the PPP to move beyond being an extension of the Bhutto family. The party has chosen Bhutto's teenage son—a student at Oxford who has had only minimal contact with his country growing up—as its president (and her husband as its co-chair). But given that her son's political talents are untested and his experience non-existent, the party has also declared that, if it wins the elections, it will name Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the current party vice president, to be the next prime minister of Pakistan. This is a very encouraging development.

Fahim is widely regarded as a decent, progressive, and measured man who is every bit as secular as Bhutto. He had hitherto eschewed the job of prime minister because he did not want to cross swords with her. He lacks Bhutto's charisma and dynamism, but that won't be a problem for him this time because of the sympathy vote his party will draw. Bhutto's death, over time, will allow the PPP to shed her family's domination, while at the same time use its name to maintain continuity and coherence.

This is precisely what happened in neighboring India. After the assassinations of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and of her son Rajiv seven years later, many feared that their party, Congress (I), would never recover. Much like the PPP, for nearly 40 years, Congress (I) had been synonymous with the Gandhi name. Without a viable and visible Gandhi left to represent it, it seemed likely that the party would enter the political wilderness, never to return. Instead, over the years, Congress (I) forged a new arrangement with the Gandhi family that has allowed it to harness the clan's political capital while casting a much wider net for political talent. This has allowed Congress (I) to offer India two stellar prime ministers, including the current one, who became the architects of the country's economic liberalization.

The same thing might happen in Pakistan. Bhutto's assassination could well liberate her party from her flaws and give her country the push it needs to realize her vision. If that happens, Bhutto's most important legacy might still be ahead of her.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation.

NEXT: Checking on Paul's Chances

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. A very optimistic account, and I hope it does come to pass. Even better that the Pakistanis did it without the involvement of the US.

  2. Instead of imagining the Bhuttos to be the equivalent of the Rockefellers, it might be better to picture a different New York family…the Gottis.

    You’ll have a better sense of how Benazir, who probably was behind the murder of one of her brothers, operated, if you think of her that way. You’ll also have a better understanding of why Pakistan is so messed up. Imagine if the major parties in the US were essentially family enterprises run by the Gotti family of NYC and the Calabrese family of Chicago. (This may not be too hard, what with the GOP essentially being Bush, Inc. and the Dems pretty close to being Clinton, Inc.)

    Instead of seeing Benazir as the second coming of Susan B. Anthony, think of her as John Gotti with a Prada purse, or as a feudal grandee, who had trouble speaking the language of her homeland, but spoke the imperial speech quite well, with a thing veneer of liberalism.

    She was an awful person, and it says something about how bad Pakistan is that her return to power would have almost certainly been an improvement.

    So far, btw, her legacy doesn’t look democratic, unless “annointing her son as leader as soon as his father ceases being regent” counts as democratic.

  3. Oh, and I think it’s beyond optimistic to hold out the way the Congress Party has been working in India as a model.

    Let me put it a different way than Dalmia did:

    After Rajiv Gandhi got whacked, his wife took over but, realizing she couldn’t be Prime Minister, retreated a bit, and has backed someone who won’t be around to stand in the way when her son Rahul decides he wants to be PM.

    She’s still President of the Congress Party, and the candidates she’s promoted aren’t exactly dynamoes, even when they are under the age of 65.

    Maybe India might be better off if Congress had collapsed, and Pakistan might be better off without its corrupt dynasty.

  4. OK it’s terrible that she was killed, but Bhutto was no saint. She was forced from power twice for corruption. Her husband was known as “Mr. 10%” for all the graft he took. Plus, She supported the the Taliban! They came to power during her tenure as Prime Minister. She actively supported them.

  5. Interesting. Some commenters just regurgitate points that Dalmia makes in her article, without refuting the specific points of qualified hope she makes.

    Other commenters seem to do something even lamer: they assume that pessimism (as opposed to enlightened cynicism, which is something different) correlates positively with intelligence. Bullshit! The optimistic view is not automatically wrong. Memories of this kind of condescension on the part of my parents, by the way, make it easy for me to understand Benazir Bhutto’s internecine backstabbing.

  6. Internecine family backstabbing, I mean. According to my online dictionary, family in particular isn’t part of the definition of internecine.

  7. I screwed up again! D’oh! My Mac’s own pre-installed dictionary, I meant to say.

  8. I got a Mac for Christmas, too, Brian.

    I’m having a devil of a time finding the Start button.

  9. If you’ve got the Mac up and running then the easiest way to find the start button is to get it out from under all of the leftovers you threw away today.

  10. I would imagine she will help democracy more in death than in life for the simple reason that Bhutto was a pathetic excuse for a democrat. She did next to nothing to improve the lot of the Pakistani people when she was in power. Nothing she did can be described as furthering the cause of democracy, in my opinion.
    Now she has posthumously caught the Kennedy syndrome. A mediocre president, or in the case of Bhutto, a lousy one, is lionized as great because her life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

  11. He lacks Bhutto’s charisma and dynamism, but that won’t be a problem for him this time because of the sympathy vote his party will draw.

    Yeah…’cause once he wins this sympathy vote, he won’t have to actually do anything that requires charisma and dynamism…you know…like lead a country.

    Lord knows you don’t need those skills when it comes to wresting control from an entrenched military dictator.

  12. The thing that gets me about this Pakistan mess is that her 19-year-old son is now the heir apparent to Pakistan’s throne.

    That is sensible, isn’t it? After all, it is HER son, a Bhutto, with regal Bhutto blood flowing through his veins. Yes, he is the best boy for the job.

    If she had been asasinated ten years ago, imagine the impact on the world to have witnessed a nuke-toting middle eastern country deftly managed by a ten year old; it would have been nearly Biblical. Of course, the now-mature 19 year old’s statemanship won’t seem nearly as impressive.

  13. What you have written in the article is quite true. The PPP will get renewed impetus from the heinous murder of its chairperson. I have interviewed many people who were in no way supporters of PPP. They had all their sympathies with the bereaved party now. PPP would sweep the general election if were held on the previous schedule. The postponement of the general election by the brutal rergime of Musharraf is in fact an endeavour to orevent PPP from a two third majority. You have also exactly pointed out that militancy has increased during the so called enlightened regime. It is becuase Musharraf’s enlightenment and secular posture is a sham, a fruad. How can a military man be enlightened. He has deformed enlightenment and reason in Pakistan. It is also true that the more the establishment wants to crush PPP, the more it flourishes. It is not a party now. It has become a cult after the judicial assasination of its founder and the heinous murder of his daughter. Wev wonder when will the secret agencies stop their hidden agenda?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.