Examining Bhutto's Significance in Pakistan

Paula Newberg, author of Judging the State: Courts and Constitutional Politics in Pakistan, has written about Pakistan for 30 years.

She talks with Michele Norris about who Benazir Bhutto is, why she's so popular, and why she's a target for assassination.

Benazir Bhutto Led Tumultuous Life in Politics

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto at a press conference.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October after eight years in exile. Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Benazir Bhutto took up the mantle of her executed father to twice lead Pakistan as prime minister. She was assassinated Thursday while campaigning to win leadership again and redeem the years she spent in exile. She was 54.

To the outside world, Bhutto represented both the promise and peril of Pakistan. She was the only woman to rise so far in the Islamic nation, where she championed secular rule but also became entangled in the country's culture of corruption.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October, after eight years in exile in London and Dubai. She narrowly survived a suicide attack upon her return.

At a rally Thursday before her death, Bhutto alluded to the danger she faced, as she had done on several occasions in recent months.

"I put my life in danger and came here because I feel this country is in danger. People are worried. We will bring the country out of this crisis," Bhutto told supporters in her final speech.

The Harvard and Oxford-educated Bhutto had become an icon in the West, which found it hard to resist the allure of the charismatic female leader of an otherwise male-dominated Islamic nation.

She appeared in a People list of the "World's 50 Most Beautiful People" and in an arrest notice from Interpol, the international police agency on charges of official corruption while in office.

Still accused, Bhutto returned to Pakistan two months ago after living in exile in London and Dubai.

Leaders of her Pakistan People's Party had been negotiating with the military government of President Pervez Musharraf on a deal that reportedly could have exempted her from prosecution and given her a share in the government.

But shortly after her return, Musharraf declared a state of emergency and placed her briefly under house arrest, effectively ending all talk of a power-sharing deal.

Bhutto's Life in Politics

Bhutto's tumultuous life in politics followed a family tradition that began with her grandfather. The wealthy feudal lord helped clear the way for the creation of Pakistan as an autonomous state for South Asian Muslims in 1947.

Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, served terms as Pakistan's president and prime minister in the 1970s. He was deposed in a military coup, convicted of ordering the murder of a political rival and hanged in 1979. His political party and his family have always maintained that he was falsely accused and tried on the orders of the coup leader, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.

Bhutto was 26 and under house arrest with her mother in her home city of Karachi when her father was hanged. She was a graduate of Harvard University and had studied international law and diplomacy at Oxford. For the next six years, she worked on a book (Pakistan: The Gathering Storm, 1983) and served as an aide to her mother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, who had assumed the leadership of the Pakistan People's Party.

In 1984, Bhutto was allowed to return to the United Kingdom, where she became the party leader in exile. In late 1987, she married Asif Ali Zardari, the hereditary leader of an important Pakistani tribal group. The couple has three children.

Leading the Country

In 1988, Pakistan's military dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, was killed in an airplane crash. In the general election that followed, the PPP won a majority of seats in parliament, and Benazir Bhutto was chosen as prime minister.

Bhutto's party promised to remove the last traces of feudalism from Pakistani society and to run the government in accordance with socialist principals. She also promised to improve the lot of women and repeal provisions of Pakistani law that restrict women's freedom, but her government was unable to overcome conservative opposition in parliament.

Bhutto had cast herself as a strong opponent of terrorism. But her opponents claimed her government provided aid to the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the belief that the Islamist movement would bring stability to that country.

Dismissed from Government

Bhutto's government was dismissed in 1990 amid charges of corruption involving her husband. The leader of an important tribal group in Pakistan, Zardari became known as "Mr. Ten Percent" during his wife's tenure, because of allegations that he extorted that percentage from people seeking to do business with the Pakistani government. He served two years in prison but was released when Bhutto won re-election in 1993.

In 1996, Bhutto's government was dismissed a second time, again on corruption charges involving her husband. The couple was accused of — among other things — accepting bribes to grant a single dealer a monopoly on importing gold to Pakistan. Investigators found a document appearing to show that the dealer deposited $10 million into Zardari's bank account in Dubai, a document the dealer says was forged.

Allegations against the couple also surfaced in France, Poland and Switzerland. Zardari was held in prison for another eight years without trial before his release by the Musharraf government in 2004.

In the end, Bhutto's secular credentials in Muslim-dominated Pakistan and her close ties to the U.S. could have been her downfall. Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban hated Bhutto for her close ties to the Americans and support for the war on terrorism. In the months before her assassination, a local Taliban leader had reportedly threatened to target her with suicide attacks.

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