Pakistan at an Uncertain Hour

By Teresita C. Schaffer, who directs the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She served as deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia from 1989 to 1992 and U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1992 to 1995 (THE WASHINGTON POST, 28/12/07):

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination leaves slim possibilities for a democratic transition that now matters more than ever to the United States. Bhutto and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) illustrate what’s best and worst about Pakistani politics. The party and the drive for democratic politics are remarkably resilient. The PPP boasts a nationwide following, with a dedicated core in Sindh and southern Punjab. But the tragedy of Pakistan is that the PPP and other major parties are family fiefdoms, built on personal loyalty, with no record of developing new leaders or permitting opposition within the ranks. This structure strengthens the tendency to view political office as a possession. Corruption and unaccountability are natural byproducts. Talented second-tier party members had no prospect of emerging from Bhutto’s shadow.

I first met her in 1974, when she was a slightly impish 21-year-old home from Oxford on summer vacation. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was prime minister, a political virtuoso, part Napoleon, part Peron. My husband and I were diplomats just arrived in Pakistan, but Benazir had already been part of our lives indirectly while she and my brother were students at Harvard.

Five years later, the elder Bhutto was dead, and Benazir had inherited his party. She spent her first years as a political leader under house arrest. In those years, Benazir captured people’s imagination. Senior civil servants, staid businesspeople and prominent personalities saw in her a modernizing influence, someone who could propel the country beyond military governments and dysfunctional politics. More than one told me that they saw her as a beacon of hope for young Pakistani women.

She took the United States by storm during her first state visit, in 1989. Her address to Congress and a speech she gave at Harvard emphasized hope for democracy and for a world of possibilities. She and President George H.W. Bush had a warm relationship.

Less than a year later the country’s relations with India were in crisis and the United States was edging toward cutting off aid over its nuclear program. In August 1990, Benazir was overthrown at the army’s instigation. For 10 years, she and her political rival Nawaz Sharif alternated terms as prime minister. Each was pushed out amid deepening disillusionment and accusations of corruption. Finally, in October 1999, Pervez Musharraf’s coup ushered in a long exile for both.

In the past year, the U.S. government became deeply involved in negotiating an arrangement under which she would provide a nonreligious political anchor for Musharraf’s troubled government and would, in turn, share power. That the United States wanted to see her back in office is remarkable, considering how greatly her credibility in Washington had been damaged after her last exit. She turned on the old magic. She knew the moves that would attract administration and congressional support. Her dramatic return in October, with huge crowds greeting her in Karachi, showed that she could turn on some of the old magic inside Pakistan as well.

It was unrealistic to expect a “soft landing” from Musharraf’s hybrid government to a partial democracy mediated by Benazir. Musharraf never wanted to share power; indeed, he emphasized his belief in “unity of command.” Especially after the six-week state of emergency this fall, Musharraf and the army had overwhelming incentive to ensure that the PPP did not emerge from the January elections with a credible claim to the prime minister’s job.

A rigged election would have been another black mark on the troubled history of democracy in Pakistan. But this tragedy is a blow not just against democracy but against any kind of decent government. Benazir was killed in the same park where Pakistan’s second leader, Liaquat Ali Khan, was gunned down in 1951. His assassination was widely regarded as the event that fundamentally undermined democratic rule in Pakistan.

There is a very small chance for Pakistan’s political and military leaders to move toward new leadership, fair elections and a common effort to reconquer Pakistan from extremist foes. Key questions include who takes over the PPP, how both major non-religious parties act in the coming weeks, how the army reacts to the rioting that erupted yesterday, and whether fair elections eventually take place. History does not offer much encouragement, but this would be a good time to beat the historical odds.