Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto

Ayesha Siddiqa
28 December 2007

Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent political and defence analyst. She is the author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, published by Pluto Press

Also in openDemocracy:

"Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

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

Pakistan's opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed by an assassin on 27 December 2007 in Rawalpindi, just after making a speech to supporters of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP). This makes her the fourth in the Bhutto family to have died violently. Her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in 1979, following his overthrow by the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. Benazir's younger brother Shahnawaz was murdered in 1985, and her second brother Murtaza killed in Karachi in 1996 (during her second tenure as prime minister). Many believe that both brothers were killed by Pakistan's intelligence agencies, just as they are ready to see some covert hand in Benazir's assassination.

Benazir Bhutto's political career began in 1977 after her father, prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was sacked. The death of Zia ul-Haq himself in an air crash in August 1988 opened the way to her own accession to power. Her own politics were far from radical; in any case, once in power she soon realised the strength of the military, which was instrumental in twice ousting her from the prime ministership (which she held December 1988-August 1990 and July 1993-November 1996).

In terrorism.oD on Benazir Bhutto's death: Kanishk Tharoor, "Benazir murdered: what next?"After years in exile during the rule of Pakistan's military president, Pervez Musharraf, Benazir returned to Pakistan on 18 October 2007. The dangers were immediately apparent in an attack on her motorcade in Karachi which killed more than 140 people and narrowly missed Benazir herself. She threw herself into the effort to secure a return to power by mobilising her forces in the campaign for the elections scheduled for January 2008.

The lesson of tragedy

It was always going to be a tough struggle against many odds. For many urban and educated Pakistanis, Benazir Bhutto's political career was finished in 1996 when for a second time a government she led was overthrown. the grounds for her removal - charges of corruption - were never proved. Moreover, the political deal she had struck with Pervez Musharraf (no longer in charge of the army, but still Pakistan's president) meant that cases against her in the Swiss, Spanish and British courts were in the process of being withdrawn.

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

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

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's poker-game" (14 September 2007)

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

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

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

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan: the election and after" (10 December 2007)Many people in Pakistan criticised Benazir's decision to negotiate and forge an agreement with the military dictator. However, many others approved of her political move. They argued that since the military in Pakistan cannot be wished away, political forces have to negotiate their way to power with the defence forces and then try to change the system from within. This was termed the country's "transition to democracy".

Others disagreed; they believed that such a transition was not possible without some basic changes in Pakistan's governance structures - including the military's withdrawal from politics. The country could not transit to democracy unless a fresh balance was established among the various institutions of the state (especially between military and civilian institutions). Those who embraced the first view (transition without transformation) laughed at those who supported the second.

Sadly, Benazir Bhutto's tragic death proves that no transition to democracy is possible without some fundamental changes in the political system. The negative forces are too strong to allow any political player to establish himself or herself.

The day after the assassination - which in the accompanying suicide-bombing that followed took around sixteen more lives, and has been followed by violence across the country that (at the time of writing) has seen nineteen people killed - is one of intense speculation about the identity of the Benazir Bhutto's murderers. But a clear political judgment can already be made: that in the end, it was not necessarily the religious extremists but a different set of equally intolerant forces - what I call the political fundamentalists - who took her life.

In any case, "al-Qaida" is just a name which can be used to mean everything or nothing. It will now be difficult to find out who exactly killed Benazir - especially when the government made sure they washed away all forensic evidence in the twelve hours after the murder.

But this is not just an individual's death; it is also the killing of the only national party in the country. The fact that Benazir had held the Pakistan People's Party together also means that the party - in a condition emblematic of Pakistan as a whole - suffered from over-centralisation and over-personalisation. This combination of institutional and political failure underlines how important it is that politicians and civil society in Pakistan now carefully consider their options. The military and its cronies have to be forced to withdraw before democracy takes root in the country. As long as they refuse, the path of politics in Pakistan will remain extremely bloody.

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