Benazir Bhutto: the politics of murder

Irfan Husain
28 December 2007

Also in openDemocracy on Benazir Bhutto's death:Kanishk Tharoor, "Benazir murdered: what next?" (27 December 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan: after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2008)

Just days before she returned to Karachi on 18 October 2007, Benazir Bhutto gave an interview to the BBC in which she called Pakistan "one of the most dangerous countries in the world". She was to be proved right just hours after touchdown when two suicide-bombs killed more than 140 of her supporters as they accompanied her in a mammoth rally from the airport.

After she narrowly survived that assassination attempt, she accused the Pervez Musharraf government of not having done enough to protect her. This is a refrain that has already been picked up by her supporters in the aftermath of her murder in Rawalpindi on 27 December 2007. After all, this is Pakistan's biggest garrison city; it is home to army headquarters, as well as housing thousands of retired and serving military personnel.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan. Among Irfan Husain's articles in openDemocracy:

"The Baluchi insurrection" (4 September 2006)

"How democracy works in Pakistan" (29 September 2006)

"Pervez Musharraf: in a vice" (6 November 2006)

"Pervez Musharraf's bed of nails" (29 April 2007)

"Pakistan: the enemy within" (30 July 2007)

"Pervez Musharraf's desperate gamble" (5 November 2007)

"Pakistan's multi-faceted crisis" (12 November 2007)

"Pakistan: a question of legitimacy" (26 November 2007)

"Pakistan: the election and after" (10 December 2007)Bhutto's tragic death again highlights the deep faultlines in the country's social and political map which she herself embodied. On the one hand, there was the westernised, urbane politician, educated at Harvard and Oxford universities, and the first woman to be elected to rule a Muslim state. On the other are the fanatics who rally around the al-Qaida banner; although largely concentrated in the tribal areas of the northwest, they have sympathisers across the country.

For them, elections such as the one scheduled for 8 January 2008 are at best an irrelevance, at worst a threat. They saw Benazir Bhutto as pro-American, and a possible danger to them as they try to consolidate their hold in the badlands of the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their aim in eliminating Bhutto appears to be to ensure the re-election of the "Q" faction of the Muslim League. This was part of the ruling coalition that supported Musharraf for the last five years, and was predicted to be squeezed between Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Nawaz Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).

The latest opinion poll conducted by an American think-tank had placed Bhutto and Sharif ahead of their rivals with approval ratings of 38% each. The PML-Q trailed at just over 20%. In this scenario, the PPP and the PML-N had been widely expected to win a majority in the next assembly, and thus form a coalition government.

Apart from reducing the PML-Q to a small minority, such an electoral outcome would have spelled bad news for Musharraf. After all, he had hounded the two opposition leaders mercilessly since he seized power in 1999, driving them into exile, and then attacked them incessantly at each opportunity. If either or both Bhutto and Sharif had formed the next government, they would have had scores to settle with Musharraf.

However, Nawaz Sharif's announcement in the wake of Bhutto's murder that his party will boycott the 8 January elections, and the PPP's declaration of a forty-day mourning period, will almost certainly cause the polls to be postponed.

The political prospect

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamabad" (4 June 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's peril" (19 July 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan: the power of the gun" (7 November 2007)

Iftikhar H Malik, "Pakistan: misgovernance to meltdown" (19 November 2007)

Saskia Sassen, "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007) The PPP is a dynastic party formed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1967. After he was toppled from power in 1977 by Zia ul-Haq, Musharraf's predecessor as military dictator, the party was led by his wife, Nusrat Bhutto. A couple of years later, when the deposed prime minister was executed, Benazir Bhutto was made life chairperson. The result of this family hold on the party is that no alternative leadership has been allowed to emerge. Even during her years in exile, she nominated a senior party leader to act in her place. But she would summon the PPP high command to Dubai or London when important decisions needed to be made.

Thus, the PPP finds itself leaderless on the eve of elections. For the most part, it was her charisma and her wide appeal to the poor and the dispossessed that formed the core of the PPP's electoral appeal. Without her in command, it is possible the party might split along provincial lines. Currently, no party leader possesses the stature within the hierarchy to claim Bhutto's mantle. Her three children are too young to play a role, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is widely disliked by party members for giving his wife a bad name through his financial wheeling-dealing.

But obviously, the party leadership is not going to waste the sympathy vote that is bound to come the PPP's way. In the short term, the party is likely to rally around a senior figure like Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a Sindhi politician Benazir Bhutto relied on. According to critics, he had Bhutto's favour because he is colourless and unambitious. But much as these qualities would have appealed to an exiled leader who feared being supplanted, they are unlikely to win the party many votes.

The other possibility might have been Aitzaz Ahsan, a bright barrister from Lahore who has raised his profile when he spearheaded a popular movement for judicial independence. Ever since Musharraf imposed a state of emergency on 3 November 2007, he has either been in jail or under house-arrest. A bright, articulate lawyer, he has made a name for himself in Pakistan and abroad through his activism.

But the fact that he is from Punjab, Pakistan's biggest province, might alienate party members and supporters from the smaller units, and especially from Sindh, Bhutto's home province. Another factor that might block Ahsan's elevation is that on 12 December 2007 he announced a boycott of the elections in support of the judges who had been removed by Musharraf last month.

Despite the infighting that is bound to occur, the PPP remians a formidable political force in Pakistan. Its leader's assassination is sure to motivate many apolitical Pakistanis to cast their votes in its favour. Even if the elections are postponed, the PPP is still poised to garner the biggest block of seats in parliament. It is likely that the next few weeks will see the emergence of a committee of senior party leaders to govern the party and lead it into the elections. How it fares in the future remains to be seen.

Expose the ‘dark money’ bankrolling our politics

US Christian ‘fundamentalists’, some linked to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, have poured at least $50m of ‘dark money’ into Europe over the past decade – boosting the far right.

That's just the tip of the iceberg: we've got many more leads to chase down. Find out more and support our work here.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram