The assassination that orphaned Pakistani politics

Ten years after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the void she left behind in Pakistan’s politics has not been filled.

Benazir Bhutto
Supporters of Pakistan's slain leader Benazir Bhutto take part in a memorial in Lahore, Pakistan on December 27, 2015 [File: AP/K M Chaudary]

“Where were you when Benazir was killed?” is one of the best ways to start a conversation in Pakistan. Most remember the moment when news of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s death spread and parts of the country fell into turmoil.

Ten years later, Bhutto has not been forgotten. Her name and face frequently appear on billboards and election materials, as candidates continue to exploit her legacy for votes. Schools, colleges, airports and hospitals are named after her. There are social welfare schemes in her name. She even has a district named after her – Benazirabad. 

Bhutto was so popular that a crowd of hundreds of thousands greeted her in October 2007, when she returned from self-imposed exile, just three months before she was assassinated. With the support of the United States, she was to negotiate a power-sharing deal with Pakistan’s military ruler General Pervez Musharraf.

It was the second time she had staged a triumphal return to Pakistan. The first one was in 1986 when after several years in exile, she came back to rally the civilian political forces against the military dictatorship. A decade earlier, the Pakistani army had staged a coup against her father, the late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and had taken power, hanging him a year later.

Bhutto had a complicated relationship with the military. At times, they would be engaged in a dangerous tug-of-war over political power and at others, they would cooperate. She supported hardline foreign policy, which the military leadership also pushed for. It was during her second premiership in the 1990s that the Pakistan-backed Taliban took over Kabul.

She also had a controversial political track record domestically; both of the governments she led in the 1980s and 1990s were marred by corruption. She was known to appoint members of her family to positions in her cabinet, including her mother, Nusrat Bhutto, and her husband, Asif Zardari, who was known as “Mr 10 percent”.

Even her staunchest critics, however, admit that Bhutto was a force to be reckoned with and was one of the country’s most popular politicians. She was doing what others could only dream of. Few remember how current PM Nawaz Sharif also tried to come back from exile in 2007 only to be deported disgracefully immediately after his arrival.

On December 27, 2007, Bhutto was assassinated during a political rally in the city of Rawalpindi. She had just survived another assassination attempt in October that year that had killed some 150 people.

Her death marked a turning point for politics in Pakistan. After her departure, the mainstream political forces would never be able to unite against dictatorship again.

A symptom of this political decay in Pakistan is the fact that 10 years on, Pakistanis still do not know who killed Bhutto. She joins a line of leaders and heads of state, like Liaquat Ali Khan and Ziaul Haq, whose murder mysteries haven’t been solved.

Those same powers who have undermined a proper investigation of her murder have also slowly diminished all that she fought for. Basic rights, including women’s rights and personal freedoms guaranteed in the constitution, have all been curbed under the guise of national security.

The civilian political elite continues to struggle to bring under its control the country’s defence and foreign policies. More and more it seems that the military is pulling the strings in Pakistan.

An interview with Benazir Bhutto which aired on Al Jazeera on November 3, 2007.

Mainstream political parties, which once had representation on a national level, are now able to garner support in one or two provinces only. Religious parties and groups have become increasingly aggressive and have posed a challenge to the traditional political scene. In the coming elections, it is quite likely that right-wing parties, including some with links to militant groups, will emerge stronger than the mainstream. 

One of these parties is Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), whose leader, former cricket star Imran Khan, has more than once openly praised the Taliban for their mode of governance. His party, which is in power in the troubled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has re-written school textbooks to erase what they referred to as “secular teachings”.

Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has also changed significantly. The party has suffered from the high hand of Bhutto’s spouse – Zardari, who went on to become co-chairperson and was later elected president of the country. He has appointed his near and dear ones to party and government positions and has sidelined Bhutto loyalists. The party’s policies have shifted from social reforms to self-enrichment.

The ideology of the party, which once rallied thousands, has been relegated to empty slogans.

Gone are the days of student protests or workers fighting for their rights in the streets of Karachi. The hope of an equitable society that the party once called for with its slogan “roti, kapra aur makaan,” (bread, clothes and shelter)  has been forgotten. Only money seems to matter, and corruption and nepotism have spread through the party like a cancer. 

Zardari has sided with the army and has undermined PM Sharif’s test of wills against the judiciary and the generals. It is likely that the PPP would not be able to recover from this pitfall.

Zardari has also been actively undermining his son, Bilawal, who has tried to pick up his mother’s legacy and become a political leader. So far, Bilawal has been unable to capture the imagination of Pakistani voters. He struggles with speaking in his mother tongue and usually ends up making a fool of himself.

So today, as Pakistanis remember Bhutto and her legacy, they also mourn the sad state of politics in their country. For a decade now, Pakistan’s political elite, obsessed with self-interest and corrupt practices, has been unable to produce a politician with Bhutto’s stature and political acumen who could rally the streets of Pakistan under progressive and inclusive slogans.

The dream of a Pakistan as a thriving, vibrant and modern Islamic democracy under civilian rule seems so distant today.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.