Headstrong and head-scarved, Benazir Bhutto has spent a lifetime embracing contradictions while playing a central role in the turbulent life of her country.
She is a populist political operator springing from one of Pakistan’s most powerful feudal dynasties; a woman with degrees from Harvard and Oxford, but a traditionally arranged marriage; a symbol of political modernity and of old-fashioned personal corruption; and a female leader in a male-dominated Islamic culture.
And now, in the tumultuous month since her return to Pakistan after eight years abroad, Mrs. Bhutto, 54, faces yet another pair of sharply diverging options – cut an insider deal with President Pervez Musharraf to end the country’s political crisis or take up the banner of the opposition to bring down the embattled general.
Choosing either path, say those who know her, would not be out of character.
S. Azmat Hassan was a senior diplomat in Pakistan’s foreign service for more than three decades and advised Mrs. Bhutto on foreign policy during her second stint as prime minister from 1993 to 1996. He said the clash of wills between the president and Mrs. Bhutto is a clear reflection of their clashing personalities and histories.
“In theory, a compromise would be a good match,” said Mr. Hassan, now an instructor at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.
“But I have misgivings, because they are two very strong-minded individuals, with two very different mind-sets. She comes from an aristocratic family and received the best education possible abroad. He is a military man who worked his way up through the ranks. They have such differing backgrounds that it makes their dealings very problematic,” he said.
Mrs. Bhutto’s remarkable personal story is in some ways a mirror of her country’s problems, reflecting the difficult interplay of politics, religion and military power in modern Pakistani history.
Her grandfather was a feudal lord and landowner in Pakistan’s Sindh province, while her father, Zulfikar Bhutto, was a leading lawyer who was elected prime minister in 1973.
Her father’s election occurred while Benazir Bhutto was studying abroad, eventually earning degrees from Harvard and Oxford. She was elected president of the famous Oxford Union debating society and became close friends with then-Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher of Britain.
But Mr. Bhutto clashed with Pakistan’s powerful military leaders – a pattern his daughter would repeat in her own political career. He was deposed and then executed in 1979 by the military government of Gen. Zia ul-Haq.
Benazir Bhutto, the oldest of four siblings, met with her father just hours before his hanging. She would spend much of the next five years in jail while laying the foundation for her own political career.
Gen. Zia’s death in a mysterious plane crash in 1988 opened the way for Mrs. Bhutto to take power in elections later that year. Her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) swept to power, and Mrs. Bhutto came to office serving with many of the generals who had put her father to death.
But Mr. Hassan noted that in her two terms as prime minister, from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996, she clashed not with the military but with the Pakistani president, the civilian head of state with the power to dismiss her.
“She had a strong personality, she was very intelligent, and she was very conscious of the Bhutto name,” he said. “How much she contributed to her own political difficulties is still a matter of opinion in Pakistan.”
Mrs. Bhutto has been dogged throughout her career by charges of corruption, many of them linked to her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, whom she wed in an arranged marriage in 1987.
More than a dozen corruption and graft cases have been filed against Mrs. Bhutto and her husband, and one of the preconditions demanded by Mrs. Bhutto of Gen. Musharraf on her return to Pakistan on Oct. 18 was an amnesty from corruption charges.
Lifting the legal cloud is vital if Mrs. Bhutto hopes to revive her career in parliament.
In her autobiography, “Daughter of Destiny,” Mrs. Bhutto wrote: “An arranged marriage was the price I had to pay for the political path my life had taken.”
A charismatic public speaker who inspires deep loyalty, Mrs. Bhutto nevertheless has built her political career on a relatively narrow base anchored in her native Sindh province.
A September poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI) of Pakistani popular attitudes found Mrs. Bhutto rated as the country’s “best leader” by nearly two-thirds of those surveyed in Sindh, but by no more than 30 percent in Pakistan’s other three provinces.
Political analysts say Mrs. Bhutto was inspired to end her lengthy self-imposed exile this year in part because she sensed a weakening of Gen. Musharraf’s position and in part because her dominance inside the PPP was coming into question.
The prospect that she may cut a power-sharing deal with the president might play well in Washington and other Western capitals fearful of rising Islamic militancy, but it already has proved divisive among her supporters.
The IRI poll also found that just 27 percent of Pakistanis thought Mrs. Bhutto was considering a compromise with Gen. Musharraf in order to “bring democracy to Pakistan,” while 47 percent said she was looking to “improve her personal situation” and 26 percent declined to answer.
A 1993 profile of Mrs. Bhutto in the New Yorker magazine summarized the contradictions that still hold true today.
Mrs. Bhutto, the report noted, “is an Eastern fatalist by birth, a Western liberal by conviction, and a people-power revolutionary … through sheer necessity,” the magazine said
“She is an expensively educated product of the West who has ruled a male-dominated Islamic society of the East. She is a democrat who appeals to feudal loyalties.”Top