Benazir Bhutto’s Political Future

The murdered former leader may help Pakistani democracy more in death than in life.

Shakespeare famously wrote in connection with the assassination of the great Roman emperor Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” The exact opposite might turn out to be the case with Benazir Bhutto. She was an exceedingly flawed figure whose death, ironically, might contribute more toward her goal of turning Pakistan into a secular democracy than her life.

There is little doubt that under President Pervez Musharraf, the military general who assumed power in a bloodless coup in 1999, Pakistan has become both less secular and less democratic. His support for the U.S. in its battle against Islamic terrorism has become a huge obstacle to secularism in Pakistan. It has antagonized Islamic fundamentalists and he largely acquiesced to their demands-even ceding territory to them in the northwest frontier provinces-to prevent them from destabilizing his regime. At the same time, he has resorted to ever more draconian tactics to suppress dissidents-such as the chief justice of Pakistan and lawyers’ groups-who have questioned his political legitimacy. All while cashing in mountains of U.S. dollars in post-9/11 aid. These moves have deeply antagonized Pakistan’s moderate and urban intelligentsia and fuelled widespread anti-American sentiment. More to the point, it has made it more difficult for Pakistan to reverse course and move toward democracy.

The great hope both in Pakistan and the U.S. was that Bhutto, as the leader of the closest thing to a genuinely liberal party in the country, the Pakistani People’s Party (PPP), would unify Pakistan’s secular forces ahead of the January elections and then win a voter mandate to beat back religious fundamentalists not just in mosques but in the nation’s intelligence and armed services.

This was not a baseless hope. A former prime minister, Bhutto was a charismatic and courageous figure who, despite having spent the last eight years in exile in England, retained a strong following in Pakistan. Educated in the West, she was the only candidate in the upcoming elections who was making the case for fighting radical Islam-not in the name of a more moderate religion, but of the rule of law. Her pledge to respect the country’s constitution, restore the separation of powers, and protect the political rights of ordinary citizens was a central part of her platform.

But articulating the case for a secular democracy is not sufficient for actually producing one. It requires political leaders of the right timber. And, it is doubtful that, in the end, Bhutto had what it takes. Indeed, the biggest obstacles to the creation of functioning democratic institutions in Pakistan, as in other emerging nations, are corruption and ambition. Bhutto had both, in abundance.

Her two stints as prime minister from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996 were corrupt even by Pakistani standards. She made her husband a cabinet minister and gave him free rein to use his position to bequeath favors on businesses for kick-backs, a practice that earned him the sobriquet of “Mr. 10 percent.” Both times her administration collapsed amidst corruption scandals, which did much to pave the way for a takeover by Musharraf, who justified his dictatorial rule as necessary to clean house.

But Bhutto’s overweening ambition was potentially even more of an obstacle to democracy than her corruption. She belonged to the political equivalent of the Rockefeller family. As the oldest and most brilliant of the four children of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a flamboyant and populist prime minister who was hanged by his successor, she sincerely believed that she was the only legitimate heir to her father’s political legacy. She bickered bitterly with her brothers and her mother over the leadership of the PPP, the party founded by her father. One of her brothers, who challenged her role in the party, was gunned down by the police outside his home while she occupied the prime minister’s office. Soon after, she summarily deposed her mother as the president of the PPP and gave herself the position for life. “I had no idea I had nourished a viper in my breast,” her mother wailed at the time. If Bhutto could not set aside her ambition for the well-being of her family, it is doubtful that she would have done so for the sake of democracy in Pakistan.

Yet her death might contribute more to that end than if she had actually won a third term. The perception that she martyred herself to rid the country of its jihadist reactionaries will force moderately religious opponents to at least pay lip service to her secularist convictions. Al Qaeda’s possible involvement in her assassination will discredit Islamist parties that are already viewed as little more than fronts for extremist groups.

Equally important, her assassination will produce some unique and powerful benefits for her party that will greatly help the democratic process in Pakistan. The PPP will get a huge sympathy vote in the next election (even as it moved to contest their timing this weekend). More crucially, however, her murder allows the PPP to move beyond being an extension of the Bhutto family. The party has chosen Bhutto’s teenage son-a student at Oxford who has had only minimal contact with his country growing up-as its president (and her husband as its co-chair). But given that her son’s political talents are untested and his experience non-existent, the party has also declared that, if it wins the elections, it will name Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the current party vice president, to be the next prime minister of Pakistan. This is a very encouraging development.

Fahim is widely regarded as a decent, progressive, and measured man who is every bit as secular as Bhutto. He had hitherto eschewed the job of prime minister because he did not want to cross swords with her. He lacks Bhutto’s charisma and dynamism, but that won’t be a problem for him this time because of the sympathy vote his party will draw. Bhutto’s death, over time, will allow the PPP to shed her family’s domination, while at the same time use its name to maintain continuity and coherence.

This is precisely what happened in neighboring India. After the assassinations of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and of her son Rajiv seven years later, many feared that their party, Congress (I), would never recover. Much like the PPP, for nearly 40 years, Congress (I) had been synonymous with the Gandhi name. Without a viable and visible Gandhi left to represent it, it seemed likely that the party would enter the political wilderness, never to return. Instead, over the years, Congress (I) forged a new arrangement with the Gandhi family that has allowed it to harness the clan’s political capital while casting a much wider net for political talent. This has allowed Congress (I) to offer India two stellar prime ministers, including the current one, who became the architects of the country’s economic liberalization.

The same thing might happen in Pakistan. Bhutto’s assassination could well liberate her party from her flaws and give her country the push it needs to realize her vision. If that happens, Bhutto’s most important legacy might still be ahead of her.