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29 December 2007

Forever stalked by shadow of violence

by Christopher Kremmer

Benazir Bhutto was a fighter, a brave woman in a man's country who died fighting for the vision of a democratic Pakistan that is now, more than ever, under siege.

She came to power through privilege, the daughter of the charismatic Pakistan People's Party founder and former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed under military ruler Mohammad Zia ul-Haq's regime in 1979.

But whatever power she inherited, Benazir (as she was universally known in her homeland) built her own legend using every weapon in her considerable armoury, which included inexhaustible energy, political conviction, pride as a woman, a Pakistani and a Muslim, and the famous Bhutto charisma, which this writer witnessed many times.

A brilliant speaker, she studied at Harvard and Oxford in the 1970s, serving as president of the Oxford Union debating society, making friends and gaining an intimate understanding of the West that would serve her well later in her career.

The execution of her father gave birth to a political dynasty, catapulting Benazir to leadership of the People's Party. Jailed and sent into exile in Britain, she campaigned and lobbied relentlessly, wearing down the military-backed government back home.

Bhutto's return from exile in 1986, when she was met by a crowd of more than a million supporters at Lahore airport, was the pinnacle of her political career. Within two years she had been elected the first woman to lead a modern Muslim nation.

Those were days of hope and renewal for two battered South Asian democracies, as Pakistan and India - the latter ruled by another scion of a political dynasty, Rajiv Gandhi - moved closer. Wags ventured that the two young leaders would have made the ideal power couple, with money, education, good looks and power, apart from religious differences and the fact that Gandhi was married.

In retrospect, Bhutto, like Gandhi, was unable to fulfil her potential in the face of an enormous weight of historical, political and cultural baggage. Both were assassinated in the prime of their lives.

While Bhutto commanded Pakistan's largest democratic political party, she confronted, and was part of, a feudal power structure in which real power remained overwhelmingly in the hands of large landowners and military men.

For all her education, talent and connections, she was simply the wrong gender as far as they were concerned. I lost count of the number of times she was privately derided by her male opponents as "that woman". The fact that the People's Party's power base was among the country's poor, with left-wing rhetoric to boot, didn't help her cause.

In August 1990 the sale of a squadron of second-hand jet fighters to Islamabad had made Australia flavour of the month. Bhutto and her allies rolled out the red carpet for her guests, led by the then foreign affairs minister, Gareth Evans. The touring party's accommodation was upgraded to head of state level, a five-star tour up the Khyber Pass was organised, and a series of banquets was held from Lahore to Peshawar.

Yet the pomp and ceremony obscured the elected prime minister's fragile grip on power. No sooner had we left the country than she was deposed in a bloodless political coup organised by the then president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, backed by the military.

Her dismissal on trumped up charges of abuse of power gave birth to a new Bhutto, more strident and haughty than ever, and not a little shrill. It was as if, having been born to lead her nation, she had been disinherited and humiliated. The struggle to restore democracy increasingly became indistinguishable from the struggle to restore her pride. The ends justified the means.

Entrenched opposition to her reformist mandate and beliefs meant that Bhutto spent her brief stints in power consumed by the struggle to hold on to her seat. What social change she engineered was superficial, largely cosmetic.

Crucially, she was wedged by the military and intelligence establishment, and went along with their plans to use Islamist militants to pursue Pakistan's regional ambitions in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Shadowed by the men in uniform, Pakistan's democratic leaders have all become cheerleaders for this disastrous policy.

It was Bhutto's close political ally, the former interior minister, Nasrullah Babar, who fostered the rise of the Taliban during her second term in office. The ghosts of that period would return to haunt her.

The second Bhutto government, from 1993 to 1996, was when the real corruption started, according to those doing business with Pakistan. Benazir had married, and her new husband, Asif Ali Zardari, quickly earned the sobriquet of "Mr Ten Per Cent". The next time she was sacked, the public believed the allegations against her.

Weakened politically, her enemies moved against her. In April 1999, while she was out of the country, Pakistan issued warrants for her arrest. She would spend eight years living in exile with her three children. She remained there until a political deal with another military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, paved the way for her return in October.

The nation to which Bhutto returned, however, was one deeply damaged by terrorism and the means used to combat it. The convoy that greeted her at Karachi was bombed by al-Qaeda, killing 130 people and almost eliminating Bhutto.

The shadow of death hung over a brave and determined Muslim woman.

Electioneering in a developing nation of 160 million people requires mass contact, yet to swim among the people had become a fatal enterprise. Hated by the Islamists for her unswerving commitment to democracy and close relations with the West, Bhutto was living on borrowed time.

When they struck, it was with the usual weapons: guns and bombs wielded by a fanatic. In truth, these have always been the currency of politics in Pakistan, apart from those few times on which the Bhuttos were able to mobilise the masses. The country's founder, a socially moderate Islamist, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, would be turning in his grave.

It is too early to know how this murderous episode will affect the outcome of the parliamentary elections. The People's Party was always a Bhutto show. Her bereaved husband is damaged goods. Her son, 19-year old Bilawal, may not be yet be ready - or, indeed, inclined - to run, politically opportune though the moment may be.

That leaves Pakistan - the world's sixth-most populous nation - in the hands of a ragtag bunch of soldiers, businessmen and former cricketers, none of them immune from the grim charms of Islamist rhetoric, and none of them with a mass base.

The murder of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto is a tragedy for Pakistan. It could also be the last nail in the coffin of democracy in that tormented country.

Christopher Kremmer first met Benazir Bhutto in 1990 when he interviewed at her home in Karachi

-- The Sydney Morning Herald


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