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Q&A with T.V. Paul on the 25th anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s election

Twenty-five years ago today, Benazir Bhutto became the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan and the first female head of government in a Muslim country. T.V. Paul, author of The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World, joins us to discuss her legacy, the role of women in Pakistani politics today, and the changing shape of political parties in Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan’s first and, so far, only female Prime Minister of Pakistan. What has changed for women in Pakistani politics since then?

Women’s role in Pakistan’s social and political life still remains secondary. Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister largely because she was the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and the best known figure for the Pakistan People’s Party in 1988. In South Asia almost all women leaders emerged due to their close family links. In the May 2013 elections for the 272 elected members in the National Assembly, as many 150 women candidates contested, but only 6 won. However, an additional 60 seats are reserved for women. In the provincial elections 313 women contested and 10 won.

Bhutto and her successors introduced very little meaningful legislation to support women, barring the reservation of some seats in parliament. She promised to remove the Hudood ordinance of the Zia-ul-Haq regime, which undercut women’s rights considerably, but was not successful. In fact, a precipitous decline has occurred in the area of women’s education as the state is unable to control Taliban engineered opposition to girls’ education in many parts of Pakistan where they retain de facto control. The October 2012 shooting of young activist Malala Yousafzai has brought this issue to international attention more forcefully, but it is yet to be seen how Pakistan tackles the problem, especially in the context of the ongoing struggle with the Taliban and other sectarian forces.

Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, speaks to the press upon her arrival for a state visit at Andrews Air Force Base, May 6, 1989.  Image by SRA Gerald B. Johnson, United States Department of Defense. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, speaks to the press upon her arrival for a state visit at Andrews Air Force Base, May 6, 1989. Image by SRA Gerald B. Johnson, United States Department of Defense. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

What was Bhutto’s legacy? What were her key political successes or failures?

Bhutto’s legacy is a mixed one. On the one hand, she proved that a woman can be prime minister of an orthodox Muslim country and she showed much courage in the face of adversity, especially in the context of the assassination of her father and two brothers, the long jail terms and house arrests of her and her husband, and constant challenges from the army, mullahs, and other political parties. On the other hand, her policies were driven by a hard realpolitik agenda and they proved to be hurtful to Pakistan in the long run. Three areas in which Bhutto’s policies did harm to Pakistan were:

  1. Bhutto’s strong support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, by appointing a pro-Taliban Pashtun leader as minister of the interior and thereby ensuring Taliban’s success in the civil war, the consequences of which are still haunting Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the world.
  2. Her allowing and supporting the A.Q. Khan network in spreading nuclear materials to North Korea, Iran, and Libya during the 1990s. In an interview she confessed carrying CDs of nuclear designs to Pyongyang, which she denied later.
  3. She increased Pakistan’s support to militant groups fighting against India in Kashmir. These same groups now have become a challenge to Pakistan’s internal peace and act as spoilers in any rapprochement with India.

On the positive side, it must be noted that she refused to approve a limited military action in Kashmir similar to the Kargil operation in 1999 as proposed by Pervez Musharraf, a lieutenant general during her period. She had great difficulty managing relations with the military and presidents (who were trying to gain power from the elected government). It may well be that she pursued hard realpolitik external policies to placate the military and prove her mettle as a tough leader in a male-dominated country.

What role does Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), play in Pakistan today?

Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007 generated a considerable wave of sympathy for the PPP, and subsequent electoral victory in February 2008, which led to a coalition government spearheaded by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as president. It also led to the appointment of two prime ministers during the period. Zardari completed his six year term, but in the May 2013 elections the PPP lost its majority to Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N). It came second in the number of seats, although the second position in terms of popular votes went to cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Kahn’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Only in the province of Sindh did the PPP maintain a respectable position. President Zardari and his son, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the chairman of PPP, stayed away from the electoral campaign fearing militant attacks.

The Zardari government could take credit for getting rid of the military rule and staying in office full term, as well as for the addition of the 18th constitutional amendment which made Pakistan a parliamentary democracy by transferring presidential powers to the prime minister and the cabinet, improving the freedom of the press, occasional consensus based legislations, as well as some economic support to poor families. The party lost largely due to the disenchantment of the electorate with the deteriorating law and order situation, a crumbling economy, especially high unemployment, and the deepening crisis in electricity supply among other things. Zardari’s pro-US position, especially in allowing drone attacks on the Taliban, which sometimes claimed innocent civilians as victims, also hurt the PPP’s position.

How does the current ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), differ from the PPP?

Nawaz Sharif’s party won the largest number of seats from the Punjab, the bastion of Pakistan’s political and economic power. The differences are that the PPP is left of the center, with a proclaimed social democratic ideology, while PML(N) is center-right with a more conservative approach. Sharif’s support base comes largely from landed aristocracy and small and medium businesses in the Punjab, while the PPP has a more working class and peasant support base from the Sindh and southern Punjab. The lack of a strong leader like Benazir Bhutto probably was a reason for the disconnect PPP faced from the electorate. Anti-incumbency sentiment also worked against the PPP. If properly organized and contested, the PPP could come back to power in the future in a coalition arrangement given that Nawaz Sharif has not been able to solve any of the problems he inherited from the PPP government. In the current Pakistani political order, no single party is likely to gain majority status.

T.V. Paul is James McGill Professor of International Relations at McGill University, Montreal, and a leading scholar of international security, regional security, and South Asia. His most recent book is The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World. He has also published 15 other books and over 55 journal articles and book chapters and has lectured at research institutions internationally. He is the editor of the book series: South Asia in World Affairs and was the founding director of the McGill/University of Montreal Center for International Peace and Security Studies (CIPSS). During 2013-14 Paul served as vice-president of the International Studies Association (ISA).

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Recent Comments

  1. Khalq e Khuda

    While the book was on my reading list I am less inclined to buy it after reading the article as the writer evidently is unfamiliar with Pakistani society.

    Benazir biggest legacy was that majority of Pakistanis retained faith in democracy forcing the demise of dictatorships which otherwise would have institutionalised themselves as in Myanmar, North Korea and Egypt.

    In a country where religion remains of paramount importance she ensured that orthodox parties should be irrelevant forcing extreme right to opine more centrist views.

    Lastly her and the legacy of her successors for women rights in Pakistan trumps all the rest of the rulers in Pakistan combined including that of her own father.

    I concur that many aspects about Benazir’s life are debatable, her legacy is certainly not one of them.

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