Loyalty, belief in Bhutto set to garner Pakistan votes
Agence France-Presse
By Hasan Mansoor
LARKANA, Pakistan (AFP) — The peasants who gather round a life-size poster of Benazir Bhutto believe it will help resolve a tribal dispute — and her party hopes such faith will translate into millions of votes.

The slain Pakistani opposition leader has become akin to a saint among people in her ancestral town of Larkana, ascribed with powers that most other candidates in next week’s elections can only dream of.

Larkana community leader Akhtar Mahoto said people not only bring verses by saints from the mystical Sufi strain of Islam to resolve local wrangles, now “the portrait of Benazir is also added because she commands such respect.”

“At a recent meeting the participants agreed to settle a long-standing dispute with a pledge, before Bhutto’s image, that they would not fight again,” Mahoto told AFP.

“We consider these personalities as witness to our pledge and then swear on the Holy Koran to remain committed to our pledge,” he said. Bhutto did not always have the same unifying power in life, as her assassination at a political rally in the northern city of Rawalpindi on December 27 showed.

But the two-term former prime minister nevertheless remained one of the only truly national leaders in a country riven by deep ethnic, religious, sectarian and political faultlines.

Her Pakistan People’s Party is now counting on her to unite the country’s electorate against President Pervez Musharraf and also overcome some internal strife.

Famously superstitious in life, Bhutto’s new status in death chimes well with the folksy beliefs of the dustbowl farmers and warring clans in rural southern Sindh province, where she spent large parts of her childhood.

It is also where she was buried after her assassination — and her grave in the Bhutto family mausoleum in Ghari Khuda Bakhsh, a half-hour drive from Larkana, has become a virtual shrine.

During recent ceremonies to mark the 40th and final day of mourning for Bhutto, women brought newborn babies to the five-domed tomb for her blessing.

“This family of martyrs has always helped us. We believe their blessings for my grandson will make him successful,” said Shahida Bibi, 50, carrying her two-week-old grandson.

Martyrs are certainly part of the growing Bhutto mythology. Benazir is buried alongside her father, ex-prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged in 1979, while her two brothers lie nearby.

“I have watched people visit Shaheed Baba’s (Zulfiqar Bhutto’s) grave for years but after Benazir’s martyrdom this trend has become stronger,” said Karim Bakhsh Bhutto, an unrelated resident living near the tomb.

“Benazir was a hope for us when she was alive and many of her followers have not yet lost that hope,” he said.

Nor has her Pakistan People’s Party.

“The sympathy element is very strong,” PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar told AFP recently.

But another senior party official said Pakistanis were simply “angry” about Bhutto’s assassination.

“We do not believe in sympathy, we believe in revenge and our revenge is that we change this system through the power of the ballot,” close Bhutto aide Taj Haider said.

Recent polls surveys by two US-based groups gave the PPP a lead over other opposition parties and, especially, over the allies of Musharraf.

The party is “benefiting from both a wave of sympathy as well as a backlash against the government” following her murder in December, the US-based International Republican Institute said in its survey published Monday.

Yet the appointment of Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari as regent of the party until their 19-year-old son Bilawal is old enough to lead has caused deep fissures within the PPP.

Zardari is a divisive figure in the party because of corruption allegations that earned him the name “Mr Ten Percent” during Benazir’s time in power. Polls say he lacks her popularity with voters.

Political analyst Rasul Baksh Rais said sympathy for the slain leader would be an “important” factor in polls.

“If Zardari had not come upfront it would have been even more,” Rais, a political science teacher at the Lahore University of of Management Sciences, told AFP.

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