Former Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif is calling for President Pervez Musharraf to resign immediately to "save Pakistan" in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto was murdered overnight in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad. She was shot in the neck by her attacker before he blew himself up killing 17 people. Sharif has blamed Musharraf for not protecting Bhutto. He said he will now boycott the planned 8 January elections because the president is a threat to the country’s stability. "I demand that Musharraf quit power, without delay of a single day, to save Pakistan,” he said.
As former Australian ambassador to Pakistan, Geoffrey Price, outlined in Quadrant in 1997, Bhutto had an amazing record of firsts. She was elected twice, dismissed twice, and twice defeated at the polls in the space of just eight years. She was the first female head of government in Pakistan and the first woman elected prime minister of an Islamic country. At 35, she was also the youngest elected prime minister of the 20th century. She was also the first PM to have a child (her second) in office. Price also called her the “worlds’ most glamorous head of government" when she took power in 1988.
In the view of the west, her beauty created an impression of a Pakistan that was making a metamorphosis from a military oligarchy into a vibrant democracy. But Bhutto was very much a creature of Pakistan’s elite. She hailed from a prominent political family. Bhutto adored her father, former Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was illegally ousted from that role by President Zia ul-Haq who then tried and executed him for a specious murder charge. Benazir and her mother were interned until after the sentence was carried out. Bhutto then went into exile to Britain where she inherited her parents’ leadership of the democratic socialist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
In 1987 she married Asif Ali Zardari, who hailed from a minor Baluchi feudal family. A year later Zia sacked his government and scheduled an election for a date he thought would coincide with the birth of Bhutto’s first child. But Bhutto had tricked him and the baby would be born well before the vital final weeks of campaigning. Shortly before the election, Zia died in mysterious circumstances when his plane crashed and exploded after takeoff from a military base. His death proved fortuitous to Bhutto and the PPP won the largest amount of seats in the election.
She formed a coalition government with the help of minor parties. There was general optimism in the air especially after she established an apparent rapport with Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi (the pair would suffer a similar ultimate fate). Pakistan returned to the Commonwealth fold. But tensions between Pakistan and India ran to deep and the early successes were squandered. The gloss began to fade as allegations of corruption, nepotism and tax evasion arose against her and her husband. New President Ishaq Khan sacked her government in 1990. In the election that followed, the PPP was easily beaten by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League.
But less than three years later Sharif too was sacked by the army. Bhutto won the election and was prime minister a second time. This time she lasted three years only to face essentially the same charges of dismissal as the first time only this time by a new president (Farooq Leghari) and with a longer list of alleged offences. Most serious was the allegation she instigated police terrorism in Karachi against political opponents resulting in hundreds of deaths. Her husband was arrested and charged with the murder of Benazir’s brother Murtaza Bhutto who was becoming a political rival. This time round, the PPP were obliterated at the election that followed.
Bhutto and her husband went into exile in Dubai. The couple wealth is believed to be in the region of $1.5 billion. Her two terms frustratingly delivered very little. She and her husband are wanted on corruption charges in several countries. Switzerland accused the couple of gaining multi-million dollar kickbacks in exchange for handing out a contract to a Swiss firm during Bhutto's second term as Prime Minister. But with Musharraf’s regime in trouble and elections due in January, the time was ripe for Bhutto to come home. She returned to a hero’s welcome in October and narrowly avoided assassination in another suicide attack. This time she was not so lucky.
Her death provides Pervez Musharraf with a new set of problems. He came to power with pro-American policies. But when he attempted to stack the Supreme Court with his appointees, he triggered a massive backlash from lawyers and judges. He is under heavy pressure from the US to end military rule. Washington concocted an “arranged marriage”: Bhutto would return to Pakistan, there would be elections, followed by a power-sharing deal. And the status quo would carry on with renewed legitimacy. But neither Musharraf nor Bhutto would not have been able to stop the rot of corruption, poverty, and underdevelopment that plagues the country.
Neither can control militant elements. Nor would they have been able to control the military. The army has often aligned itself with Islamist forces. The Zia government backed Hezb-i-Islami which is now aligned with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Even Benazir Bhutto was forced to recognise the legitimacy of the Taliban government in Afghanistan (the only country to do so). As Sharif Shuja observed in the National Observer, a majority of Pakistanis don’t want Sharia Law but if it comes, it won’t be as a result of an election. A nuclear armed Pakistan ruled by Islamic militants could conceivably be a greater problem to world stability than Iran. The assassination of Bhutto may bring forward that outcome, albeit masked by “the necessity” of military rule.