Pakistan has a new political leader barely out of nappies. Bila wal Bhutto, 19, has become the new chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), after the assassination of his mother, Benazir Bhutto. The teenager, who has hardly spent any time in Pakistan and speaks virtually no Urdu, will share the responsibility of leading the most powerful political party in Pakistan with his widower father, Asif Ali Zardari, who has become co-chair of the PPP. This is what Benazir has bequeathed to the party and the nation.
Despite all the rhetoric about democracy, the PPP did not even consider holding an election to find a new leader. There are devoted PPP politicians who could have assumed the mantle of leadership – from Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who managed the party during Ms Bhutto’s exile, to Aitzaz Ahsan, the brilliant lawyer who led the agitation against President Pervez Musharraf yet was marginalised by her because of his immense popularity. But quite simply, at no time during its existence has the PPP actually practised democracy.
Though she was seen as liberal and west-leaning, Bhutto based her political power on the feudal tenants of her ancestral lands in Sindh. For all that she proclaimed the need for democracy, the PPP, of which Bhutto appointed herself “chairperson for life”, is another autocratic fiefdom. It is a family, dynastic business; a Bhutto can only be succeeded by another Bhutto – even if he has to return to Oxford to finish his studies. Ms Bhutto was fully aware of her husband’s reputation for authoritarianism and corruption. During her two terms as prime minister, he was known as “Mr Ten Per Cent”. Still she appointed him as successor in her will.
“Democracy is the best revenge,” Bilawal quoted his mother as saying at his first press conference. In Pakistan, however, this mantra is not as positive as it appears. Politics has become a revenger’s tragedy in its regular oscillation between civilian and military rule. Each painful transition creates an agenda of animosity and scores to be settled. When politics begins with the unfinished business of old wrongs, genuine development takes a back seat. The groundwork for another round is evident in the bizarre argument about how Bhutto actually met her death. Did she die from an assassin’s bullet, as the Bhutto camp claims? Or from a skull fracture after hitting her head on the lever of her car’s sunroof, as the government suggests? Then comes the question of who instigated the murder.
The government claims Baitullah Mehsud, a leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was behind the assassination. It produced in evidence a telephone transcript in which Mehsud, speaking in Pashto, congratulates a lieutenant on the operation. Yet Mehsud has denied any involvement. “It is against tribal tradition and custom to attack a woman,” his spokesman declared. “This is a conspiracy of the government, army and intelligence agencies.” The Bhutto camp endorses this view.
Bhutto herself pointed the finger at Musharraf. “I have been made to feel insecure by his minions,” she wrote in an email to her friend and confidant in Washington Mark Siegel. “There is no way what is happening in terms of stopping me from taking private cars or using tinted windows or giving jammers or four police mobiles to cover all sides could happen without him.” People’s Party stalwarts also believe that “remnants” from the period of President Zia ul-Haq, who executed Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, intended to kill her. She talked of a state within a state, of around 400 people attached to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) who saw her as a threat and would stop at nothing to remove her.
Quite what motivation Musharraf’s government would have for assassinating Bhutto, it is hard to discern. He expected her to provide legitimacy for his presidency. Indeed, the very fact that she was eager to participate in the elections put a democratic sheen on his clinging to power. Her death not only weakens Musharraf’s position further, but may actually write the final chapter of his rule.
Security experts in Pakistan have little doubt who is behind the assassination. “I am convinced that the intelligence services were involved,” says Ayesha Siddiqa, author of the highly acclaimed book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. Only through the collusion of the security services could both a gunman and a suicide bomber have got so close to Bhutto, she says. Other analysts agree. There seems to be a general consensus that renegade current and former members of the ISI are working with religious extremists to spread a reign of terror.
Benazir Bhutto is the highest-value victim so far, but it is not just the PPP that is being targeted. Almost all Pakistani politicians are under threat. Hours before Bhutto’s assassination, an election rally organised by the Muslim League, the party of the other former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was attacked by unknown gunmen. Four party workers were killed. The Muslim League blames a pro-Musharraf party, the PML(Q), for the incident. But Musharraf allies are themselves under attack.
On 21 December, the day of the festival of Eid ul-Adha, a suicide bomber attacked a mosque in Charsadda District, near Pesha war, during Friday prayers. The intended victim, the former interior minister Aftab Sherpao, escaped unhurt but the blast killed more than 50 people. Even religious politicians, such as Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Islamic Party of Religious Leaders), who has close ties with the Taliban, have received death threats. “The truth is that anyone can be bumped off in Pakistan,” says Imran Khan, the former cricketer and leader of the Movement for Justice Party, and it can simply be “blamed on al-Qaeda”.
The real function of these threats, attacks and assassinations is to strengthen the hand of the religious extremists and undermine all vestiges of the political process in Pakistan. The intelligence services want to ensure that power remains not just with the military, but with its hardcore religious faction. “Anyone or any institution that can possibly undermine this goal is seen by them as a threat,” says Siddiqa. Bhutto was targeted because she was capable of uniting the country against the military as well as the religious extremists. Indeed, most of her criticisms during the campaign were directed towards the extremists and the security services.
Paradoxically, it was Bhutto herself who unleashed these forces. It was under her second administration that the Taliban came into existence with the aid and comfort of the ISI. While she was the first woman to lead a Muslim nation and was seen as secular, moderate and imbued with the liberalism and western approach of her Harvard and Oxford education, Bhutto fostered the politics of elective feudalism in Pakistan.
Under her leadership, the PPP became a vehicle for righting the wrongs of the past – specifically the overthrow and execution of Benazir’s beloved father – rather than an institution generating policy and debate about the changing needs of Pakistani society and maturing a new generation of political leaders. Her brother Murtaza Bhutto was killed when he challenged her leadership of the party. His whole family, including Benazir’s mother, believes she was behind the murder. Her terms in office were characterised not just by corruption and nepotism, but also by revenge and human rights abuses. She had the largest cabinet in the history of Pakistan; she even made her unelected husband minister for investment, which was generally seen as an open invitation to corruption. A common joke during her second term was that the infant Bilawal had been awarded the portfolio of minister for children.
Musharraf in the balance
These democratic deficits stop the PPP from becoming anything other than a dynastic, feudal institution. Yet such deficits are common throughout the political scene. Most politicians in the country, including the spotless Imran Khan, are feudal landowners. Increasingly, Pakistani politics has become sectional, sectarian and regional, tending to spin the country apart rather than offer a vision of a united and hopeful future. Politicians appeal to tribal, regional loyalties and to their feudal “vote banks”. Few, if any, escape being tarnished in the eyes of much of the population.
As a consequence, Pakistani politics and governance have totally failed to resolve the basic dilemmas the country has faced since its creation: what is Pakistan as a nation, as an idea? In Pakistan religion has always been a factor. But is that all there is to Pakistan? How should religion find expression in the life of the nation? There must be more to Pakistanis and their deep attachment to Islam than being swept along on the tide of jihadi ideology and the violence and terrorism it breeds. But how can Pakistan develop an alternative vision of itself as a viable state? When can such a vision become the bedrock of public life? These questions cannot be asked, let alone explored, in the current political climate.
The assassination also leaves the future of President Musharraf in the balance. The former general must be seen as a figure of declining utility to western interests. The armed forces, now one of the most hated institutions in Pakistan, are no longer a monolith. They display the same fissiparous tendencies as Pakistani society as a whole. Pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathies have taken root within the army, the only agency Musharraf supposedly controlled and could use to combat terrorism. His room for manoeuvre was always limited. After Benazir Bhutto’s murder, his chances of delivering on any of the hoped-for initiatives in the “war on terror” have evaporated. The last vestiges of US strategy have been destroyed by the gunman and the suicide bomber.
As long as Musharraf remains in power, Pakistan will be unstable, continually teetering on the edge of chaos. Further US or British manipulation of the country’s politics will only make matters worse. Even those who would never support religious extremism and are determined to oppose the growth of terrorist sympathies have an intense dislike for US involvement in Pakistani politics. Opposition to the course of US foreign policy since the 11 September 2001 attacks has hardened antipathy and made countering the rise of religious extremism ever more difficult.
A great deal of hope is being pinned on the coming elections. Bhutto’s death has brought the opposition parties together. All political parties will now participate in the elections, including the Muslim League, the second major party, which had decided to boycott them after the assassination. However, it would be wrong to assume that a PPP victory, based on a sympathy vote, would greatly reduce the underlying, simmering tensions. The extremists and their supporters in the ISI are not through with Pakistan quite yet. The polls will undoubtedly be rigged in favour of Musharraf’s party. If his supporters lose power, the scene would be set for further, and open, confrontation between the president and the newly elected government. Far from resolving anything, the elections, which were expected to be delayed until next month, may actually perpetuate the crisis.
The only sign of hope lies in the diverse character of Pakistani society, in which comment, opinion, ideas and debate are vibrant and thriving, powered not least by the emergence of satellite and cable television stations. A civil society exists, which stands apart from politics and the military. Neglected, yet robust, that civil society is the unexplored pole of all the sectional interests in Pakistan. It was elements from this sector – the judiciary, lawyers, human rights groups, news media, non-governmental organisations, students and minor parties – whom Musharraf had to restrict and destabilise to ensure his survival. They offer the prospect of a fresh departure from which a healthier, more sustainable and enduring politics might emerge.
Although the agencies of civil society are themselves still in disarray, they may yet rescue Pakistan from the motley crew of Musharraf, the military, feudal politicians and religious fanatics. Bringing a country where the political process becomes ever more discredited and hostage to violence back to sanity will not be easy, painless or swift: Pakistan is poised to endure a great deal of pain and suffering for the foreseeable future.
the Bhuttos by numbers
4 suffered unnatural deaths (Zulfikar, Shahnawaz, Murtaza, Benazir)
5 studied at Oxford (Zulfikar, Benazir, Murtaza, Shahnawaz and now Bilawal)
$8.6m fine imposed in 1999 on Benazir and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, over corruption charges (later overturned)
$1.5bn estimated profits from kickbacks made by Bhutto family and associates, according to 1996 investigation
0 pieces of major legislation passed by Benazir in first term as prime minister
10 per cent Zardari’s nickname, on account of dubious business dealings
Research by Alyssa McDonald