LARKANA, Pakistan — She is a queen here. People sacrifice goats for Benazir Bhutto, the two-time prime minister who has been in exile for eight years. They pray for her. Followers from her hometown joke that they have so much faith in her that if she asked them to vote for a horse, they would line up to do so.
But as Bhutto plans her return Thursday, many are ambivalent. They want her to come home before parliamentary elections in January. Yet some worry about the price she may have paid, of reportedly making a deal with President Pervez Musharraf, the army chief she has long criticized. For decades, Bhutto and her family symbolized the fight of Pakistanis against military rule. Now, many feel, she may have abandoned that struggle so she can regain power.
“She should come with the support of the people, not with the support of the military,” said Fahim Sheikh, 25, who sells jewelry and cosmetics in a Larkana bazaar. “I won’t vote if she comes with Musharraf. I won’t vote at all.”
In a telephone interview with the Tribune on Sunday, Bhutto denied media reports that she has made a power-sharing deal with Musharraf. She blamed the government for spreading misinformation to discredit her and said that her party, the Pakistan People’s Party, is negotiating a transition to democracy in Pakistan.
Bhutto acknowledged that some of her supporters are upset, but she said they would soon realize that she stands for democracy and against military dictators, that she is a symbol of hope and change.
“This is all about fair elections,” Bhutto said. “This is all about democracy.”
The outcome of the political struggle in Pakistan has repercussions far beyond the country’s borders. It is considered essential to the U.S.-led war on terror, and Bhutto, as always, would be a polarizing figure. Some believe she is a hero and a victim. Others believe she is corrupt and arrogant.
The West likes her because she is an outspoken moderate woman, a reasonable face for a country accused of harboring Islamic militants. But some of her views, including her statement that she would allow the U.S. to strike militants inside Pakistan, have angered many Pakistanis, even liberal ones. A Taliban leader has said her return will be “welcomed” by suicide bombers.
Her popularity has also taken a hit since she started talking with Musharraf, whose presidential win in front of parliament Oct. 6 is being challenged in court. In July, the two met in Abu Dhabi, after months of rumors of negotiations. Only 35 percent of 4,000 Pakistanis surveyed in late August and early September support a power-sharing deal between Bhutto and Musharraf, according to a poll released Thursday by the International Republican Institute.
Where Bhuttos reign
Larkana is the land of Bhutto, where almost every politician puts up a banner or a painting of himself with a Bhutto — Benazir, her dead father, her dead brother, or a lesser Bhutto. Here, impoverished farmers raise fields of rice, wheat, dates and sugar cane, contending with dried-out canals and a lack of water. To many villagers, the Bhuttos are their masters, feudal landlords who provide everything from food and money to health care and advice.
Villagers bend down in deference to touch the feet of senior Bhuttos. They pay homage to Bhutto’s late father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at an almost-finished elaborate tomb. People come from across Pakistan to lay kisses on the grave of the populist leader, who founded the popular and powerful Pakistan People’s Party and then became president and prime minister.
Benazir Bhutto, 54, popularly known as “BB” and by close friends as “Pinky,” has never seen this mausoleum, built after she went into self-imposed exile in 1999. But she has inherited her father’s legacy.
“She’ll get her crown back, God willing,” said Abdul Ghaffoor, a flower seller at her father’s tomb.
For years, Bhutto captured the imagination of not only Pakistan, but of the West. She was a tragic fairy-tale princess. Her father was overthrown in 1977 by the military and hanged two years later on a disputed murder conspiracy charge. Benazir Bhutto spent 10 years in prison and house arrest before going into exile, returning in 1986 to crowds of up to 1 million people. Two years later, she became the world’s first woman to run an Islamic country.
But Bhutto’s promise fell short. She was twice elected prime minister and twice dismissed on allegations of corruption and incompetence. In 2003, Bhutto was convicted of money laundering in Switzerland and told to pay $11 million to the Pakistani government. The conviction was overturned, but the charges are still being investigated.
Bhutto has dismissed such charges as politically motivated, and her followers agreed, overwhelmingly electing her “president for life” of the Pakistan People’s Party. From abroad, she became a leading voice of dissent against Musharraf and military rule.
But this year, Bhutto has been talking to a weakened Musharraf, desperate to hold on to power since a botched attempt to fire the country’s chief justice. The poll by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. think tank, showed that support for Musharraf is at an all-time low, at only 21 percent, down from 63 percent last fall.
This month, rumors of the deal gained credibility when Musharraf signed a controversial ordinance granting amnesty to Bhutto and other political leaders for past charges. The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a challenge to the ordinance.
‘I’m on schedule’
Bhutto said she is not worried about the newly emboldened Supreme Court hearing the case. She said the ordinance benefits not just her, but all victims of political oppression. “It’s a great moral victory,” she said. She said her party would continue to push for the repeal of a two-term limit on prime ministers so she could become prime minister for a third time.
Musharraf says Bhutto, now in Dubai, should wait to come back to Pakistan until the Supreme Court decides whether his recent presidential victory is valid. The court will hear the case starting Wednesday.
But Bhutto says she is coming, despite Musharraf, despite Taliban threats, despite the fact that her popularity may have dropped since negotiations with Musharraf became public. She said she is not worried about threats to her safety.
“I’m on schedule,” she said. “It took me eight years to make this announcement.”
In Larkana, the hometown of the Bhuttos, some people say they would welcome her, however she gets here.
“We have trust in her,” said Ayaz Soomro, the head of the Pakistan People’s Party in Larkana. “Not just trust — blind faith. We have blind faith in her.”
Preparations for her homecoming are elaborate. She will fly to Karachi and then go to Larkana, and she will see her father’s mausoleum and pray there. Supporters want the crowds welcoming her in the southern port city of Karachi to rival those of 1986, but with all the TV news channels broadcasting the event live, and with the ambivalence over the deal, such crowds are not likely.
Still, the mausoleum of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto will be white-washed. Ghaffoor, the flower seller, will buy as many pink wild rose petals as he can find.
And the people here will continue to face the same options that have haunted Pakistan for most of its history — either a military ruler, or a military-proxy civilian ruler, or a Bhutto. In Larkana, the answer is clear, even for the people who say they dislike Benazir Bhutto, such as Mumtaz Bhutto, her great-uncle, who lives in Mirpur Bhutto, or “the city of the ruler Bhutto.”
Benazir Bhutto and her husband “have run away to save their skins,” he said. “They’ve been gone for almost 10 years, and the people here have gone through absolute hell.”
Still, when it comes to voting this January, Mumtaz Bhutto will make the same decision as most others in Larkana. He will vote for Benazir Bhutto. There is no one else.Top