What becomes ever more clear in the aftermath of the tragic killing of Benazir Bhutto is that there is little if any internal democratic structure left in the Pakistan People’s Party, the one political party in Pakistan which was built on a populist grassroots foundation by Bhutto’s father in the late 60s.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was an intellectual who brought Western-style electioneering to Pakistan, campaigning up and down the country, holding political rallies in small villages and towns. But it was not all just fiery oratory and sloganeering (“Roti, kapra, aur Makan!”–Bread, clothing, and shelter!); there was a well-structured platform for poverty reduction, education, medical care, housing. And while campaigning, Bhutto also laid out his vision for an independent non-aligned foreign policy for Pakistan in his 1969 book The Myth of Independence. Though somewhat autocratic and manipulative, Bhutto showed himself as president and then prime minister from 1971-1977 to be the most effective civilian leader in Pakistan’s history.
Living up to his campaign promises, he changed labor policy to strengthen trade unions and increase workers’ rights. Despite severe opposition from powerful feudal landlords (of whom he himself was one), he managed to push through limits on land ownership. A proper constitution was adopted by the parliament under his leadership. He negotiated important treaties with India and China, particularly strengthening Sino-Pak relations and industrial cooperation. And he stepped up Pakistan’s nuclear program, foreseeing Pakistan’s need to counter a nuclear threat from India. But most importantly, by basing the foundation of his party on the poor and the illiterate, on farmers and peasants and laborers and the youth, he gave these groups not only a voice, but a dignity and hope they had never enjoyed.
Though it must be admitted that not everything he did turned out well–his nationalization of large parts of Pakistan’s industry resulted in a severe slowdown of the economy in the 70s–his was overall a record of remarkable efficacy. Despite her personal bravery and fortitude in the face of imprisonment and exile, Benazir Bhutto’s two eventual stints as Prime Minister were marked by a completely opposite inefficacy. No significant legislation was passed. No reforms were enacted. Political action was replaced by a weak and empty rhetoric, and the energies of the party her father had started were squandered on desperate efforts to stay in power. The prime minister’s office was weakened to the point that when Benazir Bhutto asked to be given a tour of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities, the army brass simply refused. The army did not even consult with her when implementing its ruinous policy of support for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Disastrous political compromises were made and the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party was purged of intellectuals and filled instead with feudal landowning thugs who had to be appeased in exchange for their support. And all the while, the Prime Minister’s husband was raiding the treasury, eventually being indicted for his crimes in at least four countries.
Despite all this, Benazir Bhutto would probably have won the upcoming elections, because the desperate people of Pakistan were willing to give her one more chance, a measure of how severely limited their choices are. She seemed even to have distanced herself from her disgraced husband. And she was bravely opposing the Jihadi forces of Islamic extremism, by far the greatest present threat to the security and integrity of the nation. People thought that with a team of the moderate Musharraf as President and the equally anti-fundamentalist Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister, there was a chance that law and order could be restored to the country. Those hopes are now dashed. (Suggestions that Musharraf was behind her killing are ludicrous. Musharraf needed Benazir Bhutto desperately to give his own regime legitimacy and stability, and is now in a much shakier situation than when she was alive.)
And now, in a final, tragic, coup de grace for democracy in Pakistan, it has been announced that Benazir Bhutto’s 19-year-old son Bilawal Bhutto will eventually become chairman-for-life of the PPP, and worse, while we wait for him to grow up, the party will be co-chaired by Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s corrupt playboy husband who still faces charges in several countries. What hope can there be for democracy in the country when its largest, most populist political party completely lacks even a semblance of internal democracy, choosing instead a cult of personality in its abhorrent, dynastic succession? This foul decision cannot–it must not–stand.