NPR logo A Dangerous Game: The Perils of Pakistani Politics


A Dangerous Game: The Perils of Pakistani Politics

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's death at the hands of an assassin is a tragic event but not a completely unexpected one. Life for Pakistani politicians is fraught with danger and has been since its founding.

Lucky is the Pakistani politician who dies of natural causes. Pakistani leaders have been hanged, shot and killed in a mysterious plane crash. Benazir Bhutto herself was no stranger to violence. Her father and two brothers all died violent deaths.

Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first popularly elected leader, was tried and hanged by a military government in 1979. Nearly a decade later, the head of that regime, General Zia-ul-Haq, died in a plane crash. The general was flying in a C-130 Hercules aircraft when it crashed in the Punjab province for still-unknown reasons.

The crash, which also killed the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, has been the subject of countless conspiracy theories. Various explanations blame the CIA, the KGB and the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, for the crash, though there is no evidence implicating any of these agencies.

A Violent Region

In one respect, the violent nature of Pakistani politics is part of a pattern in South Asia. In India, Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi were all assassinated in separate incidents. (Indira Gandhi was killed by her own bodyguards.) Suicide bombers in Sri Lanka have killed several leaders there. In fact, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers rebel group was among the first in the world to deploy suicide bombers.

Yet the violence of Pakistani politics seems to be of a different magnitude. The current president, Pervez Musharraf, has survived several assassination attempts — exactly how many is unclear, but two came within an 11-day period in 2003.

Benazir Bhutto was the target of an assassination attempt in October, shortly after returning from an eight-year exile. A suicide bomber blew himself up near Bhutto's motorcade in Karachi. At least 139 people were killed in that attack, one of the country's deadliest.

Bhutto's brother, Murtaza, a firebrand politician, died in a shootout with police in Karachi in 1996. Her other brother, Shahnawaz — also politically active — was found dead in his French Riviera apartment in 1985. There was speculation, never proved, that he was poisoned.

Why is Pakistani politics so violent? One explanation is that Pakistan, unlike its neighbor and archrival India, has been mostly ruled by men in uniform. The army is large and powerful and sets the tone for a militaristic brand of politics, analysts say.

Awash in Guns

Then there are the guns. Pakistan is awash in them. Firearms are readily available, especially in the restive tribal regions along the Afghan border, where many guns are manufactured and sold with virtually no oversight from the Pakistani government. Add to that the advent of the suicide bomber, a relatively recent development in Pakistan, and the potential for violence increases exponentially.

Another reason Pakistani politicians face an outsized danger is because of the demands of democracy itself. Politics in Pakistan is a lively, tumultuous affair, and Pakistani voters expect their politicians to get out and press the flesh in large campaign rallies. That, of course, puts the politician at risk, no matter the amount of security. Hundreds of Pakistani riot police were guarding the rally in Rawalpindi where Bhutto was killed.