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Navigating Post-Bhutto Politics

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has thrown Pakistan's political landscape into chaos. Her killing on December 27 was the culmination of a tumultuous year in Pakistan in which military rule was challenged by a re-energized opposition movement.

Like an endlessly replayed tape, Benazir Bhutto in the weeks and months before her death repeatedly called for a return to democracy and civilian rule in Pakistan as she campaigned for parliamentary elections. But many analysts say, an election to restore civilian rule does not necessarily translate into democracy.

Larry Goodson, at the U.S. Army War College, says that in its 60 years of existence, Pakistan has not really had true democracy. "No one in Pakistan really knows what democracy is because they have never really had it in any way that is meaningful," says Goodson.

Turbulent History

At crucial points in Pakistan's history, the military has intervened in the political arena, taking power away from elected leaders. Benazir Bhutto's own father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was deposed as prime minister by General Zia ul-Haq in 1977 and executed two years later. In 1999, General Pervez Musharraf seized power from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

When not exercising direct power, the military has worked behind the scenes as a power broker. Three times in the 1990s, the president, with army backing, exercised his power to dismiss the prime minister and government. Benazir Bhutto was elected then fired twice, while Nawaz Sharif was fired once and then deposed by General Musharraf.

Christine Fair, a Pakistan affairs analyst at the RAND Corporation, points out that the political careers of elected prime ministers have been short-lived in Pakistan. "It's a terribly unexercised democracy. I'm fond of telling people that, in my view, Iran has a more robust practice of democracy in the sense that people routinely go to the polls, they have reasonably good voter turnout, they oust incumbents, and elected institutions actually get to serve out their time. Not a single one of these democratically elected prime ministers [of Pakistan] has ever served out their time," says Fair.

Under President Musharraf, the center of power has shifted from the prime minister to the president. The major opposition parties, Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples' Party and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, hope that they can garner enough votes to check Mr. Musharraf's power. But no single party is expected to win an outright majority in parliament, much less the two-thirds required for the opposition to throw out President Musharraf's ordinances or even impeach him. Therefore the Bhutto and Sharif forces, which have traditionally been political enemies, would have to unite.


Christine Fair says that except for the coalition of religious parties known as the MMA, political alliances tend to have short lives in Pakistan because governments have been both corrupt and inept. "Any coalition that has come together historically -- with the exception of the MMA, I might add, which had a pretty good run -- never survives once they are in power. And the reason is, of course, is that their own venal interests begin kicking in," says Fair. "And once they are in power, their venal interests trump the fact that working together they would be able to do more because they actually don't want to do more for their country. At the end of the day, they want to line their own pockets."

Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, have been charged with corruption. Zardari spent more than 10 years in prison. However, no charges were proven in a court against Ms. Bhutto or her husband. Mr. Sharif was also accused of corruption while in office, but also never faced trial. All have rejected charges of corruption as "politically motivated".

But even contemplating such a coalition assumes there will be a free and fair vote. Elections have often been flawed in Pakistan. The opposition is charging vote-rigging even before the first ballot is cast.

In a VOA interview two weeks before her death, Bhutto claimed President Musharraf had already set in motion the machinery to rig the elections. She complained of so-called "ghost" polling stations that do not exist, and of local officials loyal to Mr. Musharraf using government funds and facilities to manipulate the outcome at the polls.

"In terms of a fair election, we need an independent election commission. We need a reconstituted caretaker government. We need the mayors suspended," said Bhutto. "We need the ghost polling stations to be done away with. We need the sanctity of the ballots. We need to have observers watching the ballots as they are transferred from the election commission to the precincts because it's in that transfer that ballots are siphoned off and given to favorite candidates. We also need to have the intelligence agencies told very firmly not to meddle in electoral affairs."

President Musharraf denies there is an attempt afoot to manipulate the vote, originally scheduled for January 8 but postponed to February 18 after Bhutto's death. "I presume very much that the system inherently is fair and transparent, and therefore I have no reason to believe that there will be any kind of rigging," says Mr. Musharraf.

The political system in Pakistan is also often a family business. Upon Benazir Bhutto's death, the party's top echelon passed the mantle of party leadership to her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. He will continue his studies at Britain's Oxford University and will not take on an immediate political role. Day-to-day running of the Pakistan Peoples Party has been left to Benazir Bhutto's controversial husband, Asif Ali Zardari.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.