Benazir Bhutto mustered a big crowd for her homecoming in Karachi. What happens next in Pakistani politics is anyone’s guess.
TO THE adoring clamour of hundreds of thousands of her supporters gathered in Karachi—and as many groans across the country — Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, returned to Pakistan on September 18th after an eight-year self-imposed exile. “This is not just a journey for me,” she declared before landing, “but the beginning of a journey for the people of Pakistan for a better future.” She sobbed on the runway. A huge bullet-proof lorry, known as the “BB-mobile”, was waiting to ferry her to the tomb of the country’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
This opens a new chapter in Pakistan’s political thriller. The main plot features a hated ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, battling an array of challengers: lawyers, incensed by the constitutional vandalism behind his eight-year rule; Taliban militants fighting his army; and civilian politicians whom he had co-opted or banished. In her crowd-pulling ability, Miss Bhutto, head of Pakistan’s biggest political party, is the most formidable of them all.
Yet to some Pakistanis she is less a challenger than a lackey. She has been negotiating with General Musharraf to share power. In this process, he this month granted Miss Bhutto (and others) amnesty from corruption charges relating to her two terms as prime minister—and so smoothed her way home. He also pledged to resign as army chief, as Miss Bhutto and the constitution demand, before November 15th when, all being well, he will be sworn in for another five-year term as president. On October 6th, still in uniform, he had himself re-elected to this post by an electoral college of Pakistani lawmakers. Every opposition party quit parliament in protest, except Miss Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Despite all this, General Musharraf and Miss Bhutto still do not have a deal. The general has not yet met some of her demands, including measures to help ensure a fair election—for example, by suspending corruptly elected pro-government mayors. One reason is that the general’s re-election is itself still in doubt. On October 17th the Supreme Court began hearing a legal challenge to it. The court was also due to rule on a challenge to the legality of Miss Bhutto’s amnesty. Pending these rulings, General Musharraf and his prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, urged Miss Bhutto to delay her return. Instead, she has gambled that it will generate enough popular support to win her a better deal from General Musharraf, or perhaps not to need one.
Miss Bhutto’s reception in Karachi—the capital of her native Sindh province—was a crucial first test. Its organisers did their work well: if there is no such thing as a free crowd in Pakistani politics, the one in Karachi was unusually pricey. For over a week thousands of billboards along the 16km (10 mile) route that Miss Bhutto’s “caravan of democracy” was to take had been rented by PPP supporters to advertise the event. “Welcome homeland Benazir!” was a poem emblazoned on one of them.
To import the requisite flag-wavers from the party’s strongholds in rural Sindh and southern Punjab, thousands of buses were hired. The driver of one parked outside Karachi airport, Sajjad Hussain, said he had come from Punjab province in a convoy of 100 buses. A local doctor, who is seeking a PPP ticket in the election, hired his bus for 75,00 rupees ($1,250). Over 500 buses were reported to have come laden from Miss Bhutto’s hometown of Larkana, in northern Sindh. Asked who was footing the bill, the PPP’s leader in Sindh, Nisar Ahmed Khuhro, grimaced: “We are, I am, tax-paid—we love it!”
It was a wise precaution. As the gold standard of political homecomings, Miss Bhutto’s supporters had her previous return from exile, in 1986, to aim at. On that occasion, with much less encouragement, some 750,000 people welcomed Miss Bhutto to Lahore. She had come to challenge the dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, who had hanged her father, a populist former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Now, however, Miss Bhutto comes as a failed former prime minister, accused (but not convicted) of grand-scale thieving.
The Musharraf Effect
Her recent dealings with the general have also hurt her. A poll for the International Republican Institute (IRI) showed that the proportion of Pakistanis who consider her their best leader has dropped to 28% in recent months. Support for Nawaz Sharif, another exiled former prime minister, who has refused to talk to General Musharraf and who briefly returned to Pakistan last month, has climbed to 36%.
Even in Larkana, Miss Bhutto’s fan-base needs priming. A dusty town, ringed by green orchards watered from the Indus river, it is festooned with welcoming banners and billboards. More solid reminders of what PPP rule means to the town are also on display: the cancer hospital and library built under Zulfikar Ali; the children’s hospital built under Benazir. Yet in 2005, albeit under pressure from General Musharraf’s agents, the city council elected a Musharraf loyalist as mayor.
General Musharraf is horribly—perhaps irredeemably—unpopular. The IRI poll gave him a 21% approval rating—down from 63% a year ago. Whether this represents an opportunity or a cost for Miss Bhutto is unclear. The answer will depend on the terms of any deal with the general. This, in turn, hinges on how Pakistanis respond to Miss Bhutto in the weeks ahead. And it may depend also on the fate of Mr Sharif, whose proxies predicted this week that he would return to Pakistan to fight the election. The government last month sent him to exile in Saudi Arabia, in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling, and says he cannot return.
In Larkana, in this time of flux, Miss Bhutto’s estranged uncle and political rival, Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, stands as a symbol of the political status quo. On the forecourt of his splendid hacienda, surrounded by his family’s 10,000 acres of land, he says of his niece’s putative deal-making: “It’s disgraceful and any government that emerges from it won’t last six months. Then we’ll have another military dictatorship.” Meanwhile, in a courteous and time-worn ritual, he beats off a large crowd of his followers, as, one by one, they line up to clasp his knees.