WORLD

A win for democracy

Bhutto claims victory in national elections

ANDREW BILSKI November 28 1988
WORLD

A win for democracy

Bhutto claims victory in national elections

ANDREW BILSKI November 28 1988

A win for democracy

WORLD

PAKISTAN

Bhutto claims victory in national elections

When her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in 1979 on disputed charges of conspiring to kill a political foe, Benazir Bhutto vowed to avenge his death by some day winning the premiership of Pakistan. Then, a mysterious plane crash last August that killed President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq—the general who had deposed Ali Bhutto in a 1977 military coup and who later had him executed—removed a major obstacle in her path. And last week, the 35year-old political firebrand appeared on the verge of fulfilling her vow. In the country’s first party-based elections in 11 years, Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) captured 92 seats in the 237-seat national assembly, beating out its main rival, the nine-party conservative Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA), which won just 55 seats. From her home in the southern city of Larkana last Thursday, Bhutto

called on acting president Ghulam Ishaq Khan to appoint her prime minister. Declared Bhutto: “We have a mandate for freedom, for dignity, for hope, for entering the 21st century with science and technology.”

After eight years of martial law under Zia and growing disillusionment with unrepresentative government, Pakistani voters sent a clear message for democratic change. Bhutto, the Harvardand Oxford-educated political scientist whom traditionalist opponents called too Westernized—and not Islamic enough—to lead the profoundly Moslem society, triumphed against the odds. With her party’s strong showing at the polls and with the balance of power now in the hands of PPP-leaning independents, minor parties and tribal leaders—who together won 58 seats—Bhutto could become the first woman ever elected to rule an Islamic republic. In the southern city of Karachi the day after the Nov. 16 election, Bhutto declared, “Given consultations with different groups and independent people, we are confident that we can get a simple majority.” Under the constitution, acting president Ishaq Khan must call on a leading candidate to form a government. When asked by reporters last week whether the new leader could be a woman, Ishaq Khan grinned, saying, “It would really be a pleasant change.” Even more encouraging for the PPP, Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, the chief of the military that has ruled Pakistan

for more than half its 41-year history, telephoned Bhutto to congratulate her on the election results and promised a peaceful transfer of power. While some Islamic theologians argued that the Koran forbids a woman leader,

there is no constitutional bar to a woman’s assuming the premiership. And given the PPP’s strength in the new parliament, Ishaq Khan has little choice but to invite Bhutto to form the next government.

Many analysts and poll observers declared the election to be the fairest in Pakistan’s history. Under the watchful eyes of police and the military—who were out in full force across the country to deter election violence—about 50 per cent of Pakistan’s 48 million eligible voters cast ballots. Because 70 per cent of Pakistanis are illiterate, each of the 27 political parties and alliances fielding candidates was assigned a symbol—for the PPP an arrow, for the IDA a bicycle. Voting separately, men and women placed an ink stamp next to the symbol of their choice.

In all, 205 Moslem seats were decided last week. Polling was postponed for two seats due to the deaths of candidates. Results of separate elections for 10 seats reserved for non-Moslem minorities had yet to be announced at week’s end, while 20 seats reserved for women will be filled by a parliamentary vote at a later date. Voting for the 483 seats in the four provincial assemblies was held last Saturday. The barrage of balloting led U.S. state department spokesman Charles Redman to declare, “We congratulate the Pakistani people and their leaders in this impressive and important step toward strengthening democracy in Pakistan.”

The only major controversy during the election was over a government requirement that all voters show an identity card. In backward rural areas, up to 70 per cent of the population—especially women—do not have such

cards. PPP officials charged that millions of their cardless supporters were effectively barred from voting. In addition, many women were apparently kept from the polls by their conservative husbands. In Sorizai, in northwest Pakistan, last week, three female election workers sat on rattan seats, chewing stubs of sugarcane. Surveying the empty women’s polling station, Syedah Koukab, one of the workers, explained, “They don’t have permission from their husbands to vote.” However, in such urban areas as Islamabad, the capital, women shrouded in veils turned out in respectable numbers.

The election results banished to history many of the familiar faces of the Zia era. Mohammad Khan Junejo, the former prime minister whom Zia sacked last May along with his entire cabinet on grounds of corruption and incompetence, failed to win a seat. Other prominent losers were the ministers of the interior, information and religious affairs.

One of the few government veterans to survive was Nawaz Sharif, 38, who was tipped to become prime minister had the IDA won a majority. Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, the most populous province in Pakistan, considers himself the political heir of Zia and, last week, he refused to concede defeat. He claimed that the IDA—an alliance of right-wing parties formed recently to try to prevent a PPP sweep—could count on the support of many independent candidates and those from the federally administered tribal areas, where eight representatives traditionally back whoever forms the government. Sharif also approached leaders of the Mohajir National Movement, the third-largest single party in the new parliament with 13 seats. The movement, formed to promote the rights of families who migrated to Pakistan’s Sind province at the partition of British India in 1947, could prove a formidable ally. But at week’s end, its support for an IDA government was far from certain.

The campaign was both a personal and a political battle for Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan in April, 1986, after nearly six years of house arrest and imprisonment, followed by two years of self-imposed exile in London. To win respect in the male-dominated society, Bhutto put aside the Western clothes of her Oxford days in favor of a head scarf and the traditional shalwar kameez—the tunic and trousers worn by most Pakistani women. In a further bid for respectability, last December, she married a prominent Pakistani businessman in an Islamic ceremony—and promptly became pregnant.

When Zia found out about the pregnancy, observers said, he timed the election to what he had assumed was Bhutto’s due date in hopes of keeping her off the campaign trail. But Bhutto upset Zia’s expectations by giving birth in September to her first son, Bilawal. Sidelined again in October by a kidney infection, she picked up the pace earlier this month. Bhutto embarked on a gruelling campaign, drawing huge crowds to rallies as she made a whistlestop train tour through the sprawling countryside. The campaign left Bhutto hoarse and

tired but unrelenting in her drive to resume the mantle of her political guru and father,

Ali Bhutto. On election day, she visited her father’s grave at the family’s ancestral home near Larkana, where both Bhutto and her mother,

Nusrat, won landslide victories.

But even if Bhutto forms the next government, it is unlikely that Pakistan will return to the era of roti, kapra and makan—bread, clothing and housing—promised in the PPP slogan that was coined by the party’s founder,

Ali Bhutto. She toned down her father’s anti-imperialist and socialist rhetoric—he nationalized much of Pakistani industry in the 1970s—to assure key allies, including the United States, and such powerful domestic lobbies as the army and big business that Pakistan would remain pro-Western and committed to private enterprise. She promised continued support of Moslem rebels fighting the communist government of neighboring Afghanistan. She also promised to pursue Zia’s program of Islamization, although not at the expense of the rights of women and non-Moslem minorities.

Bhutto has often been criticized for her imperious manner when making political decisions. But in order to succeed in the very difficult task of governing a nation ridden by economic, ethnic and political differences, observers said that she may have to acquire a more diplomatic touch. Bhutto will also have to reward the feudal landlords and retired gener-

als whom she recruited to her party to help assuage fears that she would carry out vendettas or threaten established interests.

The new government also faces the difficult task of trying to keep the army happy and in the barracks by not cutting the defence bill, which accounts for 37 per cent of the current budget. Asked by reporters before the election if she would cut military spending, Bhutto replied, “Anybody who wants to invite martial law will do that.” At the same time, the new government will be under pressure to fulfil at least some of the exaggerated promises—made by all the parties—to improve the lot of the unemployed, the homeless and poor farmers. At a time when payments on the $14.4-billion foreign debt consumes another large chunk of available resources, analysts say, that mission is virtually impossible.

At week’s end, an increasingly confident Bhutto was still awaiting Ishaq Khan’s call to form the next government. In Peshawar, the northeastern city of largely traditional Moslems that now overflows with refugees from neighboring Afghanistan, a government clerk summed up the feelings of many locals toward Bhutto. Said Abdul Aziz: “She is not good for Islam, but she is good for Pakistan.” After 11 years of despotic rule by Zia, democracy—and the compromise that it entails—appears once again to have taken root in Pakistani soil.

ANDREW BILSKI with LYSE DOUCET in Islamabad

LYSE DOUCET