However impressive the crowd that greeted Benazir Bhutto at Karachi airport might appear to television viewers, even before Friday’s bomb blasts, the hearty welcome is likely to be a misleading indication of her actual popularity in Pakistan.
Serious obstacles remain in the way of her third premiership. Recent polling by the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, suggests that her deal-making with General Pervez Musharraf over a power-sharing agreement has done serious damage to her standing at home.
The US-backed rapprochement between the president and Ms Bhutto is more popular with western governments. The business community is keen to see continuity and stability in Pakistan’s moderate and pro-reform government. The Karachi stock market’s KSE-100 index closed at a record high on Thursday – up 165 points to 14,755 – even though the deal, upon which political stability depends, faces challenges in the Supreme Court.
“Both President Musharraf’s re-election and the amnesty from corruption charges against Ms Bhutto, which forms the linchpin of her ‘deal’ with the government, are under legal challenge,” said Sakib Sherani, chief economist of ABN Amro in Pakistan. If the newly assertive Supreme Court judges rule against the government in both cases, he said, the “edifice of political certainty in the country will unravel, exposing the relief rally at the KSE to some serious re-evaluation”.
In Switzerland, a judge said on Thursday he had completed an investigation into alleged money laundering by Ms Bhutto and her husband. Judge Vincent Fournier said he would hand over his findings next week to Geneva’s chief prosecutor but noted that Pakistan’s decision to withdraw its prosecution would not help the Swiss case. At least $13m (€9.1m, £6.4m) remains frozen in Swiss bank accounts in connection with the case, which relates to alleged kickbacks from Swiss cargo inspection companies in the 1990s.
Investors with memories of the incompetent Pakistani governments of the 1990s say they would be cautious about hailing any new administration led by Ms Bhutto. Mr Sherani said unwillingness to raise taxes, extravagant public spending, uncontrolled growth of public debt, near-bankruptcy of the banking system and large-scale political recruitment were the hallmarks of governments controlled by Ms Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s party (PPP) and her rival Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) from 1988 to 1999.
Polls leave little doubt that Ms Bhutto’s image has been – at least temporarily – tarnished by her proximity to the army chief and president, whose approval ratings have plunged to 21 per cent from 63 per cent in little over a year. Mr Sharif’s more confrontational app-roach, although it resulted in his deportation to Jeddah when he tried to return to Pakistan last month, has reaped him huge poll dividends. He now comfortably outscores Ms Bhutto.
Over the next few weeks, a key challenge for Ms Bhutto will be whether she can boost support for the PPP in the Punjab, which accounts for 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population and most of its wealth. After paying her respects at her father’s grave in Larkana, her family’s home town in Sindh – whose provincial capital is Karachi – her plans were to head for the Punjabi city of Lahore, although her plans to travel by road to maximise her impact may change after last night’s bomb attacks.
“The farmers of Punjab still remember the PPP’s record in helping to promote their interests,” said Abida Hussain, a PPP leader who hopes to exploit Mr Sharif’s absence from the campaign.
But the PPP, which has lost the last two elections in the Punjab, has its work cut out, trailing far behind the PML-N and even behind the pro-Musharraf PML-Q, with only 14 per cent of the vote.
Mr Sharif could yet rain on Ms Bhutto’s parade. The former premier has been under de facto house arrest in Saudi Arabia since his attempted return to Islamabad on September 10. It is possible that a further attempt will be made at Pakistan’s Supreme Court to permit his return for parliamentary elections due in January. If he is allowed back, the Musharraf-Bhutto deal – encouraged and even brokered by Washington – might spectacularly unravel.