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Benazir Bhutto’s mixed legacy

By T.V. Paul

Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been prime minister of Pakistan twice: first in December 1988, and a second time in October 1993 after the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) managed to win two elections under her leadership. Both times the presidents (heads of state) dismissed Bhutto before she completed her full term. After losing the 1997 parliamentary elections she exiled herself until December 2007 when she returned to Pakistan to run for elections, called by exiting President General Pervez Musharraf. Assassinated on 27 December 2007, it is not clear whether she would have won that election as she was also contesting against another popular leader Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League.

The Harvard- and Oxford-educated Bhutto came to power with a lot of promise. For one thing, she had much of the charisma and oratory skills of her late father, and she showed quite a bit of courage in dealing with the country’s ever powerful military. She also had considerable goodwill and support among Western and even Indian elite and opinion-makers. During her tenure as Pakistan’s ruler she had to face significant opposition from the Army, presidents (formal heads of state), opposition parties, and Islamist groups.

Bhutto’s long-term legacy in most areas, especially the security and foreign affairs realms, is largely negative. She made some peace overtures toward India, but none were successful. However, two of her initiatives would prove fatal for Pakistan’s, and global, security. The first was the strong support her government extended to the Taliban in its civil war with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in the 1990s. The Taliban’s victory in September 1996 was possible because of the material and political support Pakistan provided while she was in office. She appointed a pro-Taliban interior minister, Naseerrullah Babar, who spearheaded Pakistan’s military support to Taliban. It is possible she was undertaking such a policy at the behest of the powerful army and conservative clerics to checkmate India, but the consequences were far and wide, with the victorious Taliban spreading its influence into Pakistan and extending support to al-Qaeda and eventually enabling the 9/11 attacks.

The second area in which Bhutto played a dangerous role was in the spread of nuclear materials and technology. She was prime minister when the A.Q. Khan network engaged in several of its activities spreading nuclear materials and weapons designs to countries such as North Korea, Iran, and Libya. Bhutto revealed in an interview with journalist Shyam Bhatia that she carried CDs in her overcoat containing nuclear weapon designs to Pyongyang in return for North Korean missiles for Pakistan’s nuclear delivery systems, a confession she later recanted.

Bhutto’s efforts to improve relations with India also proved to be unsuccessful. Initially, she was able to build a rapprochement with Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh. Like the other military and civilian rulers of Pakistan, her effort was also aimed at obtaining strategic parity with India. In response to India’s suppression of the renewed insurgency in Kashmir in the late 1980s, Bhutto’s government increased Pakistan’s support for radical groups fighting for Kashmir liberation, leading to considerable strains in relations with New Delhi. In addition, the efforts at nuclear weapons development were increased during her tenure despite the military’s attempt to hide the details of the program from her.

 Benazir Bhutto, photographed at Chandini Restaurant, Newark, CA on 9/28/04.  Photograph by iFaqueer via Wikimedia Commons.
Benazir Bhutto, photographed at Chandini Restaurant, Newark, CA in 2004. Photograph by iFaqueer. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

In these areas, Bhutto adopted a hard realpolitik approach partially to placate the army and its powerful intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). She wanted to appear tough in her dealings with Pakistan’s neighbors, as well as towards her domestic opponents.

The domestic political and economic situation under her rule also worsened as a result of the constant efforts by the army and civilian opposition, as well as the presidents, to undermine her authority. Moreover, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was involved in bribery and extortion cases, and was sent to jail after she left office in 1996 for six years. He was known as “Mr. 10 Percent” for the commissions he had allegedly obtained from clients for favors from the government. This happened despite the fact that the Bhutto and Zardari families were two of the wealthiest in Pakistan.

After Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2008, Zardari was elected president largely due to the sympathy vote, and showed a more conciliatory approach towards the army and the opposition parties than his wife did. Largely because of this, he was successful in completing his term in office even though the country’s situation in the economic and security dimensions worsened during his rule. The army’s cooperation under General Ashfaq Kayani was also pivotal for his completing the full term.

Benazir Bhutto inherited a bitterly polarized and Islamized Pakistan left by General Zia-ul-Haq. She at times acted as a Sunni Muslim to placate the majority and did very little to remove the difficulties faced by her own Shia minority community. Nothing was done to remove the restrictions placed on the Ahmadi minority. She could not remove the sharia laws put forward by Zia’s regime, nor the blasphemy law which hurts the minorities in Pakistan even today. She was also not able to do much to improve women’s condition in Pakistan, despite promises to repeal the Hudood ordinance which treats women as second class citizens. This ordinance contained provisions like the flogging of both the man and his woman rape victim, and treating a woman’s legal evidence with only half of the value of a man.

Despite the negatives she did receive international acclaim as a forceful spokesperson for Pakistan, and projected abroad a somewhat liberal face of the country. She was ideologically left of the center. Her most important positive legacy was perhaps her strident opposition to the military rule of Zia-al-Huq and Pervez Musharraf. This opposition led to her imprisonment or house arrest several times and the assassination of her father and two brothers. Her decision to return to face elections was a significant effort to strengthen the democratic forces in Pakistan. The decision proved to be fatal as it took her life, but if a democratic system consolidates and the military refrains from coups in the future, she could be claimed as one of the key leaders who made that possible.

T.V. Paul is James McGill Professor of International Relations at McGill University, Canada and the author of The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World.

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