They have been likened to the Kennedys—charismatic, wealthy, intelligent and well-educated. And like Boston’s famous political dynasty, members of Pakistan’s Bhutto family have suffered more than the usual share of tragedy. Former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in 1979 after being deposed by Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. His son Shahnawaz died of an unexplained poisoning in 1985 and his widow—a veteran of Pakistan’s worst prisons—is an invalid in France after a four-yearlong battle with lung cancer. Now, Bhutto’s 32-year-old daughter, Benazir, is in the international spotlight as leader of a burgeoning anti-Zia movement. She, too, has suffered, having spent most of the past nine years in jail, under house arrest or in exile. And she was in jail again last week as rioting flared in Pakistan. Benazir’s periods of incarceration have clearly left their mark. “My fear of death died with my father,” she said. “But solitary confinement—I shudder when I think what it is like to be quite alone.” Benazir Bhutto’s latest arrest by Zia’s police happened after she defied a government ban on political meetings on Aug. 14—Pakistan’s Independence Day. To many Pakistanis, her
stubborn opposition to Zia represents more than a personal vendetta against the man she holds responsible for murdering her father—it is characteristic of her family’s burning political
ambition. The Bhuttos are zamindars—Urdu for feudal landlords— from the Sind province in southeast Pakistan. But although most zamindars prefer a life of obscurity, the Bhuttos have been prominent for several generations. Benazir’s grandfather, Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto, was a
high-ranking official in the British colonial government that ruled India, of which Pakistan was part until 1947.
Shahnawaz Bhutto’s son Zulfikar began his rise to power in 1953, when he returned to Pakistan to practise law after studying political science at the University of California in Berkeley and jurisprudence at Oxford. Family connections brought the young lawyer into frequent contact with the country’s military leaders. And in 1958, after Gen. Mohammed Ayub Khan assumed control of the country, the 30-year-old Bhutto was among eight civilians invited to join the government, becoming Pakistan’s minister of commerce.
By 1970, Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), formed after he left the government in 1966, was strong enough to command a majority in West Pakistan in the general elections held that year. And after Pakistan’s disastrous 1971 war with India over East Pakistan, the discredited leaders of the military handed over power to Bhutto.
Many Pakistanis remember Benazir’s father as a charismatic leader and a brilliant orator. Preaching a combination of Islam and democratic socialism, Bhutto carried out a widespread nationalization of industry and launched a land-reform program. But his regime was also marked by widespread corruption and repression, and his critics branded him an arrogant demagogue. Indeed, some of his opponents blame Bhutto and his political ambitions for the bitter 1971 war. The overwhelming majority won by the Awami League in East Pakistan in the 1970 election would have given it a majority in the national parliament, leaving Bhutto with only the deputy prime ministership. As a result, his opponents argue, he fuelled instability and the campaign for East Pakistani independence by ordering his party to boycott the legislature.
By 1977 dissatisfaction with Bhutto’s government and charges that the PPP had achieved an overwhelming majority in that year’s general election by electoral fraud brought Pakistan to the crisis point. In July, Zia’s armed forces intervened and proclaimed martial law. Bhutto, charged with having ordered the murder of a political opponent in 1974, was found guilty in a military court and sentenced to death—a verdict upheld by Zia. Bhutto was hanged on April 4, 1979, and his widow, Begum Nasrat Bhutto, attempted to continue to lead the PPP. But she
spent most of her time in jail or under house arrest until illness forced her to abandon her campaign. In July, 1982, doctors advised her to go abroad for treatment for lung cancer. But Zia waited four months before allowing her to leave, leading critics to charge that he wanted her to die.
Tragedy has also hounded other Bhutto family members.
In July, 1985, Benazir’s younger brother,
Shahnawaz, was found dead in his apartment in Cannes, France. At first police believed that Shahnawaz, 27, had poisoned himself after an argument with his 27year-old Afghan-born wife, Rehana. But Shahnawaz had also been active in the campaign against Zia. Along with his brother Murtaza, he briefly organized a small anti-Zia terrorist group in the early 1980s which claimed responsibility for the 1981 hijacking of a Pakistani airliner to Syria. A police search of Shahnawaz’s apartment after his death unearthed evidence of his continuing activity in the anti-Zia campaign. And the autopsy showed that he died from ingesting a vegetable-based drug largely unknown in Europe but thought by intelligence sources to be used by the secret services of some Middle Eastern states. Benazir has since charged the Pakistani government with complicity in her brother’s death.
At first glance, the young woman who is now challenging Zia is an unlikely giant-slayer. Raised by an English nanny at the family home in Karachi and on the sprawling feudal estate near the town of Larkana, 315 km northeast of Karachi, Benazir Bhutto started her education at a Catholic convent in Karachi. At 16 she went to Radcliffe, now part of Harvard, in Cambridge, Mass., before going on to study politics and economics at Oxford. There, she demonstrated a streak of the determination and ambition common to her family by winning election to the presidency of the Oxford Union Society, the university’s prestigious debating club. And although she has claimed that she had no political ambitions prior to the death of her father, he clearly cultivated her political interests, taking her on foreign tours and, during his last year in power, giving her a job in Pakistan’s foreign office.
Benazir adored her father, spending
as much time as possible with him while he was imprisoned and running political errands for him. “He would tell me, do this, do that, contact so-and-so—the nuts, the bolts, how to have patience,” she recently recalled. In 1983, after enduring almost six years of house arrest and solitary confinement in Pakistani prisons, Benazir went into self-imposed
exile in London. In August, 1985, she returned to Pakistan for Shahnawaz’s burial and was placed under house arrest eight days after the funeral. Allowed to return to London, she waited until Zia lifted the martial law he had imposed in 1977 and returned in April to a triumphant homecoming.
Before her latest arrest Benazir was operating from the family home in the upper-class Clifton district of Karachi. One room of the white-walled mansion is devoted to the memory of her father, filled with his books and portraits of him. And she has preached her version of “Bhuttoism” throughout the country, describing it as a fight against oppression and a battle for representative rule and dignity.
Many Pakistanis have welcomed her message. But some critics claim that her program is vague. Others say that her autocratic manner and her encouragement of the cult of personalitycharges also levelled against her father—are causing bitter divisions in the 11-party coalition pressing for a return to democracy in Pakistan. “Her party has no manifesto,” said one older politician. “She acts like a film star. And once she fails to deliver the goods, people will lose patience with her.”
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