July issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

With President General Pervez Musharraf determined to keep Benazir Bhutto out of any future democratic setup, the twice-elected former premier now faces one of the toughest challenges of her controversial political career. To end her self-imposed exile or not is the question haunting Bhutto as she tries to gauge Pakistan’s political temperature from Dubai through close aides who are frequently summoned there for in-depth talks.

While Bhutto has trumpeted her intentions to return to Pakistan and lead the Pakistan People’s Party from the front in the October elections, the move is easier said than done. Although many of her party stalwarts and workers want her back, the odds pitted against her far outweigh any promise for the future. Bhutto will have to gauge her party’s strength, public sentiment and the military regime’s mood very carefully before she plays her ace card of returning to Pakistan.

Bhutto’s earlier efforts to strike a deal with the military government failed in the face of Musharraf’s no compromising attitude towards what he calls “discredited and corrupt” politicians. He remains firm to his initial promise to keep both Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif out of Pakistan’s political scene. While Sharif’s Saudi hosts have barred him from re-entering the political fray, Bhutto has been forced to gradually opt for confrontationist politics with the government and she is making her presence felt in domestic politics even from abroad.

Dubai has become the hub of Bhutto’s political activities from where she directs her party’s affairs, trying to wheel and deal with the establishment and keep a close watch on domestic politics. With political developments moving at a rapid pace as the government announced a series of controversial constitutional reforms and election orders, Bhutto has to ride out a crucial and challenging few weeks, that could well make or break her political career.

If Bhutto decides to catch a plane to Pakistan without a green signal from the Pakistani establishment, she stands the risk of arrest on corruption charges. If she doesn’t, then the People’s Party will have to elect a new leader when the country returns to democracy — which is not the best choice for Bhutto. But taking on the might of the military behemoth single-handedly at a time when Musharraf’s regime is solidly holding on to power, will be a tough decision. Even when Bhutto staged her historic return to the country in 1986, she managed to open channels with the establishment and had international support solidly behind her. Her popularity graph domestically was also at an alltime high, which is certainly not the case today.

As the situation stands, the military regime has not yet lost its utility for the United States and its allies in the global war against terrorism. The importance of Musharraf’s continued stay in power and the military’s role in the decision-making of the National Security Council in the post-election days translates into a continuity of policies, which are vital for western interests in the region.

Without the consent of the powerful military, no democratically-elected leader is in a position to take tough decisions on security and foreign policy, including the protracted Kashmir dispute with India. This hard fact is acknowledged both by western governments and Pakistani politicians. It will not be easy for Bhutto to completely ignore the factor of the military’s consent while making the decision to return to Pakistan, though she seems to have thrown down the gauntlet and is testing the nerves of the military establishment by threatening postures from abroad to force a compromise. Another major concern for Bhutto is the strength of her supporters’ mobilisation. What if her return fails to pull in the crowds?

Pakistan’s political culture has undergone a tremendous change compared to the 1980s. The massive scandals of corruption, misrule and mismanagement during the decade of democracy by the successive elected governments of both Bhutto and Sharif have disillusioned and frustrated both political workers and the Pakistani people. There is a growing indifference and contempt among the masses toward the mainstream political parties, which have been tried, tested and always found wanting.

Meanwhile, Bhutto’s crowd-pulling appeal has also sharply declined and should she be jailed on her return, not as a prisoner of conscience, but swamped by corruption charges, and the PPP fails to stir up nationwide street protests, it will be the beginning of the end for both her personal and political life.

The option of staying away and leading the party from abroad is also not feasible for Bhutto’s personal political career. “Bhutto hates the idea of allowing her party to contest elections without her,” said a senior PPP leader on the condition of anonymity. “That would eventually and effectively take the party out of her control.” The military regime is ready to allow the PPP its due role in politics — a proposition unacceptable to Bhutto.

Some senior PPP leaders are hoping that they will be the ultimate winners if Bhutto stays out of the country and are still trying to broker a deal between the government and their exiled leader. “Our leader knows about these dark horses, who want to hijack the party by keeping her out of the country,” said a Bhutto loyalist. “But she won’t let it happen.”

There is a possibility that if Bhutto fails to reach an understanding with the military government about her political future, she may be forced to take the hard decision of boycotting the polls against the wishes of the majority of her party members. According to a loyalist, however, the party is not thinking along these lines. “Boycotting the polls would also be very damaging and lead to major defections,” he said.

Fighting for the survival of her political career, Bhutto is firmly wedged between a rock and a hard place. Returning to the country without a deal with the establishment or staying away will both damage her political career.

Will she be able to pull herself out of this apparent no-win situation? This remains the most crucial test for one of Pakistan’s most charismatic, but also much-tainted political leader.

Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.