WORLD

Return to democracy

Prime Minister Bhutto pledges reform

MARY NEMETH December 12 1988
WORLD

Return to democracy

Prime Minister Bhutto pledges reform

MARY NEMETH December 12 1988

Return to democracy

WORLD

PAKISTAN

Prime Minister Bhutto pledges reform

Wearing a yellow head scarf and a brown wool shawl, Benazir Bhutto walked purposefully into Islamabad’s sombre grey parliament building last week to be sworn in to the national assembly. Spectators in the gallery, breaking parliamentary rules, gave her a standing ovation. They chanted, “Bhutto zinda hai” (Bhutto is not dead)—11 years after Gen. Mohammed Zia ulHaq overthrew Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in a military coup, and then hanged him on a disputed murder conviction. His daughter’s victory had been a long time coming. Even after her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won the most seats in national assembly elections three weeks ago, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan hesitated until it became clear that Bhutto’s rival, Nawaz Sharif of the conservative Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA), could not form a coalition government. Finally, on Dec. 1, Khan appeared on national television and nominated Bhutto as Pakistan’s first woman prime minister, returning the country to democracy after 11 years of de facto military rule.

Khan also ended the state of emergency imposed on Aug. 17 when Zia died in a plane crash. The following day, Bhutto was sworn in for a five-year term in an emotional 40-minute ceremony at the presidential palace in Islamabad. In her first speech as prime minister, Bhutto, sitting before a portrait of her father, outlined a sweeping liberal agenda. She announced that she would eliminate unemployment, hunger and illiteracy, lift restrictions on trade unions and the media, review the cases of all political prisoners and improve working conditions for women. And she pledged to compensate people who suffered under Zia’s rule. Declared Bhutto: “We will heal the wounds. We will overcome our differences through tolerance, understanding and friendship.” But she acknowledged major problems. “Our whole country is on the verge of bankruptcy,” she said. “We are on the brink of catastrophe.”

From the time of her swearing in, Bhutto had 60 days to win a parliamentary vote of confidence. Although the PPP does not command a majority—it has 105 members in the 237-seat assembly—she claimed to have the allegiance of at least 12° deputies, enough to endorse her governmer ;. But she will not control all four of Pakistan’s provincial governments. In fact, when the IDA’S Sharif bowed out of the race for prime minister, he gave up his seat in the assembly to concentrate on forming a government in the Punjab, Pakistan’s most influential and populous prov-

ince. He was able to retain his position as Punjab’s chief minister—a pivotal post from which he could choose to launch a challenge to Bhutto’s power. Overall, the elections represented a re-

sounding defeat for the IDA, which includes many Zia loyalists. When it became clear that the IDA could not form a coalition government, the nine-party alliance began to come apart at the seams, unable to agree on whom to choose as its opposition leader in parliament. In an effort to find a compromise candidate, Sharif approached Pakistan’s other well-known woman politician, Syeda Abida Hussain. But Hussain turned him down, leaving the position open at week’s end.

Bhutto’s struggle will extend far beyond just the opposition. Pakistan has two hostile neighbors, India and Afghanistan. The Indian problem was evident last week when the New Delhi government accused Pakistan’s senior defence attaché and one of his assistants of spying and expelled them from the country. Pakistan retaliated by expelling two Indian diplomats. Bhutto’s diplomatic skills will also be tested later this month when Pakistan hosts the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation’s annual summit in Islamabad, which Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi is expected to

attend. Gandhi may have made that job easier last Friday when he sent Bhutto an unusually warm letter of congratulations, saying that he wanted to work to eliminate irritants between their two countries.

Bhutto will also have to placate her own military. The army will try to maintain its control over policy on Afghanistan, where Pakistan has been backing rebels fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. As well, military leaders will want to protect the $3-billion defence budget. That may conflict with demands by the poor, who voted for Bhutto in large numbers because of the appeal of her populist father. Pakistan has an average annual per capita income of only $460 and an illiteracy rate of at least 70 per cent. Bhutto pledged to

help provide clean water, schools and health clinics. But—because Pakistan faces a massive $13.8-billion foreign debt—she may have difficulty accomplishing that. Meanwhile, parliament and the provincial governments will elect a president on Dec. 12, and Bhutto may support Khan for re-election in order to reassure the armed forces.

At the same time, Bhutto, who has no experience in government, will have to deal with the conservative religious leaders who still insist that a woman cannot lead an Islamic state. But those future problems paled last week, when the euphoria of Pakistan’s return to democracy swept the country. Pakistanis celebrated in the streets, shooting firecrackers and Kalashnikov rifles into the air, and even opposition leaders applauded Bhutto’s elevation. Said retired air marshal Asghar Khan, a political rival: “It’s a very good thing. It’s time that a democratic process started.”

MARY NEMETH with LISE DOUCET in Islamabad

LISE DOUCET