Après Bhutto: Part 4

In NI online's continuing coverage, J. Peter Pham discusses changes in Benazir Bhutto's image post-mortem.

Since her death at an assassin's hands last Thursday, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been virtually canonized by politicians and pundits alike. Representative of the former was Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton, who hailed the deceased as "a leader of tremendous political and personal courage" whom the New York senator said she had known both "during her tenures as Prime Minister and during her years in exile" and could thus vouch for Bhutto's "concern for her country, and her family, propelled her to risk her life on behalf of the Pakistani people." Typical of the latter was French journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy who, gushing that Bhutto was a "beautiful woman. . .a conspicuous, spectacularly visible woman" and elevating her to a pantheon that included Daniel Pearl, Ahmed Shah Massoud and Salman Rushdie, complained that Angela Merkel, George Bush, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy failed to immediately rush to her funeral.

Nowhere to be found in these paeans is any acknowledgment of the slain politician's far more ambiguous record, a close examination of which reveals the saint to have been all too human: specifically, as authoritarian and venal as any run-of-the-mill Third World despot. During Bhutto's second government (1993-1996), for example, the human rights advocacy group Amnesty International had cause to publish reports with titles like Pakistan: Use and Abuse of the Blasphemy Laws, Pakistan: The Pattern Persists; Torture, Deaths in Custody, "Disappearances" and Extrajudicial Executions under the PPP Government, Pakistan: Executions under the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, and Pakistan: Appeal to Ban Public Flogging. With its feudal levy of sharecropper-voters, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) headed by Bhutto (and her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, before her) has never exactly been a model of democratic practice. As for personal mores, there are the charges of corruption which have persistently dogged both Benazir Bhutto and her plutocratic husband (and environment minister), Asif Ali Zardari, and led to her government falling constitutionally not once, but twice. Incidentally, the new widower, who will now share the leadership of the PPP with the couple's 19-year-old son Bilawal, is still the subject of court proceedings not just in Pakistan, but also in England (where a High Court has uncovered ownership of a 365-acre Surrey estate that his family long denied possessing) and Switzerland (where magistrates have frozen more than $13 million in allegedly illicit proceeds).

The point of recalling these sordid details is not to highlight Bhutto's political and personal shortcomings, but rather to observe that they produced not insignificant consequences. Without making excuses for President Pervez Musharraf's less-than-stellar record with respect to dealing with Islamist extremists-much less for the motivations of Bhutto's assassin-there is no denying that the failure of Benazir Bhutto's two administrations to make real progress on factors which mattered was a major sin of omission-an oversight that contributed its share to the crisis currently faced by Pakistan and the world.

In an op-ed entitled "What's Holding Pakistan Back", published as it turns out the day before the attack in Rawalpindi, former CNN senior correspondent Walter Rodgers, who is currently teaching in Lahore, argued that "any society that wants to move toward democracy in any meaningful sense must meet minimum requirements, including: an educated citizenry, a credible legal culture, reasonable transparency in government, and real religious tolerance"-conditions which he found to be woefully lacking in Pakistan today and hence his judgment that "the hope that ‘free and fair elections' in coming days will produce greater democracy is dubious and naïve." Policymakers in the United States would do well to note that this grim prognosis came before the murder of Bhutto-whether ultimately pinned on Al-Qaeda and its allies or on their Islamist sympathizers in the shadowy world of the Pakistani security services-frayed the social fabric even further.

For all her faults, she seems to have been sincere in her recently professed desire to work to change the country, as even critics like Mansoor Ijaz-whose exposure of Bhutto's corruption in the pages of The Wall Street Journal is often cited by PPP supporters as precipitating her second dismissal in 1996-have acknowledged since her death. Certainly Bhutto's negotiations with General Musharraf to share power, while ultimately futile, were indicative of a realistic appraisal of the grave situation Pakistan finds itself in. They also showed a more mature appreciation of the need for the country's embattled secular forces, military and civilian, to put aside personal differences and arrive at a modus vivendi (Bhutto's principal civilian rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who has a reputation for pandering to Islamists, is hated by the PPP for his role in prosecuting the Bhutto clan for corruption).