Bhutto's Dramatic Return

Benazir Bhutto received a tumultuous reception in Karachi today when she ended eight years of self-imposed exile. The former prime minister stepped off the plane smiling—but with tears welling in her eyes—wearing a green shalwar kameez, a white headscarf and several amulets (called imamzams) on both arms to ward off evil. Some of the airport's security forces charged with keeping supporters at bay rushed toward her, shouting welcoming slogans. Outside the heavily guarded airport, the main thoroughfare was gridlocked by hundreds of thousands of her jubilant supporters and the buses, cars and rickshaws they had come in. They waved flags, beat drums and danced in the streets. Many shouted "Long Live Benazir!" "I feel so emotionally overwhelmed," she told reporters. "I hope I can live up to the great expectations which people here have."

Around midnight there was an explosion along Bhutto's route—according to early reports, from two bombs inside a police car. Bhutto was not wounded, but more than 100 bystanders were killed or injured. She was quickly whisked to the safety of her Karachi residence. It's unclear who was reponsible for the blasts. A tribal militant, Baitullah Mahsud, had threatened to "welcome" her with violence. Islamists have been angered by her outspokenly pro-U.S. and antimilitant stance. On the plane headed to Karachi, Bhutto talked about her enemies. "These people, who are they? They don't scare me, and we all know who controls them. Anyway, it is all in God's hands." She did not peer out the window as the plane descended. Her hands were raised in silent prayer until the plane touched down. She traveled through the city on an open truck, without bulletproof glass.

The two-time prime minister, 54, has the hopes of many Pakistanis riding on her political comeback. Most Pakistanis are tired of President Pervez Musharraf's eight years of authoritarian rule. His maneuvering to remain in power, which included his disastrous attempt to remove the nation's chief justice last March, has sent his approval rating plummeting to 21 percent. While the economy has grown at a crisp six percent over the past few years, the wealth has not trickled down to the country's less well-off majority. Al Qaeda-backed tribal militants are warring with the Pakistani army in the tribal area near the Afghan border. Insecurity, suicide bombings and Taliban-style militant Islam are creeping out of the frontier region and into the neighboring towns and cities. Musharraf, his ruling Pakistan Muslim League and its allies have dominated politics, marginalizing Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and the party of the other exiled former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf overthrew in a bloodless 1999 coup. Judging from the size of the adoring crowds, Pakistanis are looking for change in the populist Bhutto. "We are obviously stepping into something new," says Ayaz Amir, a respected political columnist. "Her arrival changes the power equation in Pakistan."

It's only a beginning, however. Bhutto's popularity has been tainted by her marathon negotiations with President Musharraf over the past few months. She had made it clear that she was demanding that Musharraf, an army general who also the powerful chief of army staff, resign from the military before running for another five-year term; that he move for two constitutional amendments in parliament: one that would remove the president's powers to dismiss parliament and another that would lift the ban on a prime minister serving a third term. Musharraf conceded none of her demands (although he agreed to resign from the Army before taking the new oath of office). He did however promulgate a controversial, and legally questionable, ordinance that gives a blanket amnesty to her and other politicians accused of corruption from 1986 to 1999, spanning the years that she was prime minister. The Pakistani media and even some of her staunch supporters criticized her acceptance of what appeared to be a self-serving deal with Musharraf. But her faithful don't see it that way. They had their leader back. "The ordinary grassroots PPP worker cares not a hoot about her corruption or the amnesty," adds Amir. "That won't affect her strong base."

Agreeing to the amnesty deal was a calculated risk that may serve her and her party well, if the Supreme Court doesn't rule the ordinance unconstitutional. At least she was allowed to return from exile with Musharraf's blessing and with his government facilitating her return. Early last month Sharif, who had ruled out any deal with the "dictator," gambled and lost. Buoyed by a Supreme Court ruling that he could return from seven years in exile, he defiantly landed in Islamabad only to be arrested and deported to Saudi Arabia within hours. Musharraf's security forces blanketed the airport and nearby Rawalpindi and Islamabad, preventing any of Sharif's followers from welcoming him. But Musharraf flung the doors wide open for Bhutto.
He may regret it. She is likely to give his lackluster political apparatus a real test in parliamentary elections scheduled for early next year. This decade Musharraf and his party have ruled unchallenged. Now suddenly they are facing some serious competition. And the rapturous welcome can only energize Bhutto and her party. "This major show will give her and her supporters encouragement and the political space to move forward toward the general election," says Lahore-based political scientist Hasan Askari Rizvi.

Bhutto herself is a tireless campaigner and her party is the only one with a true grassroots organization. That's a formidable combination. "She's the popular leader of a popular party," says Amir. "She knows how to work the hustings, and no one can match her charisma on the campaign trail." As she rode atop a custom built RV, waving at the lively crowds of bearded men, workers, merchants, lawyers and even society women lining her route in Karachi today, it was clear her prime ministerial campaign was underway.

Her return to Pakistan is the first step in a long and perilous journey toward the free and fair elections that are hoped for next year. But there are no guarantees. Sharif, who is for the moment at least the country's most popular politician according to a recent poll, is still in exile. Pakistan's Supreme Court is still hearing petitions arguing that Musharraf was ineligible to be reelected in the indirect presidential poll that he won earlier this month. The results will not be official until the court case is complete. The court is also listening to arguments claiming that the corruption amnesty ordinance is unconstitutional. Most analysts believe that the court will not overturn Musharraf's controversial, though unanimous, reelection to a new term. If it does, Musharraf would likely declare martial law and to postpone elections indefinitely. If the court voids the ordinance, Bhutto may be answerable to serious corruption charges dating back to her two terms as premier in the 1990s.

But if all goes well—and the bombing remains an isolated incident—then Pakistan could be on its way to a democratic transition. Musharraf has promised to resign from the army before he is sworn for a new term as president next month. The loss of his uniform will strip him of at least some power. And if Bhutto and her PPP run strongly in the election, bringing her to the premiership for a third time, Musharraf will have to share power for the first time. It's unclear how he would deal with a near co-equal. "It will be difficult for him to accept a system in which he is not in the driver's seat," says Rizvi. But without the army under his command, he'll have to live with it.

For now both Musharraf and Bhutto are showing restraint. "Her strategy will be not to annoy Musharraf and to exploit the new political space available to her," adds Rizvi. Pakistanis can only hope for that imperfect-but-ideal outcome called democracy.