Benazir’s Bequest

Benazir’s Bequest

In the shock, power grabs and crackdowns that followed Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, it’s easy to forget that the greatest casualty in Pakistan is the rule of law.


Editor’s note:

Read Amy Wilentz’s September 2007 interview with Benazir Bhutto here.

In history, documents come and documents go. But sometimes one would dearly love to know the exact provenance of a document and see its pages. It was odd to watch Benazir Bhutto’s will suddenly emerge this week and, as if her hands were shooting out from her elaborate grave, lay the mantle of the Pakistan People’s Party across the unready shoulders of her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

Strange, too, to see Bilawal’s supposedly ailing father, the corrupt and despised Asif Ali Zardari, leap with alacrity to declare the boy too young for the job and to assume the chairmanship of the PPP himself until Bilawal is no longer of “tender” age.

Where did this will come from, one wonders? Was it signed and witnessed, duly? Was it typed or handwritten? In English or Urdu? Zardari says it was written on October 16, two days before Bhutto returned to Pakistan. Who has had custody of it since then? Is it not a public document? If Benazir Bhutto is allowed leave her political party–Pakistan’s most important party–to her son, shouldn’t the people of Pakistan get to see the incredible document that performs such an astounding feat? In the two years that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, spent in prison, he never found the leisure, even knowing that his execution was becoming more likely every day, to write a will that left the PPP to one of his children–though Benazir was quick enough to take the party’s reins after he was hanged, in 1979. Zulfikar didn’t need to leave a will; it was obvious who would take over. That was not the case this time, until Zardari stepped in with Benazir’s bequest.

Bhutto’s assassination is surrounded by elements of unprecedented bogosity. You don’t need a will to name a successor whom you’d like to see take the reins of your party, so why all the pomp about the will, about a certifiable (though thus far uncertified by any public authority) document, as if it’s a legal matter?

One speculates that there is a will precisely because there is no will among the party faithful for Zardari to take over. No sane political party on the eve of an election would trade in the electoral benefits sparked by the killing of the beloved leader for the huge electoral deficit that might be provoked by the rise to power of the loathed–and seemingly, till now–estranged husband. Zardari needed a document.

He’s clear about a couple of things: he wants to run the party while his son is too young–say, for the next three or so years, until Bilawal graduates from Oxford. And he does not want to be the party’s candidate for prime minister in the upcoming elections (he knows that would spell defeat for the PPP). Zardari loves a smoke-filled room, and that’s what he is seeking in this power drive. There are many shady things you can do in a smoke-filled negotiation in Pakistan (not meaning to slight Iowa, or London, or any other place where deals are done), and Mr. Ten Percent–as he is known in the Pakistani tabloids, after the amount he was said to skim off government contracts while his wife was in power–is an able negotiator.

The other bogus item is the autopsy. One can’t help wonder why an autopsy is needed: of all the questions raised by the killing, the last one necessary to answer is whether Bhutto died because she hit her head ducking gunfire or because her brain was penetrated by that gunfire. What possible important issue will that resolve for Pakistan? The author of the killing is the same, whether or not Bhutto died because she ducked her head. The proximate cause is still the gunfire, and the real issue is who was the mastermind and who allowed the security lapse. One nice thing about a shooting followed immediately by a suicide bomb is that it precludes the lone, nutty gunman theory. Conspiracy is the only conclusion.

Another issue is why Bhutto stood up, abandoning the security of her bulletproof car, to present her killers with a vulnerable and irresistible target: her head and neck. She was wearing a bulletproof vest at the time, according to many reports, and was very much aware of threats against her. But character is destiny, as her killers must have realized in planning the attack. With so many supporters clamoring to see her, she couldn’t bear to keep herself hidden inside the car. She stuck her neck out for the Pakistani people. It was both a democratic and a narcissistic impulse, completely understandable and courageous, if deadly. One further question of interest: the suicide bomber died, of course, but did the shooter, as well? Many speculate that he got away. Once he’s in custody and brought to trial (that is to say, never), the Pakistani people can begin to quibble over questions of bullet trajectory and sun-roof levers.

For now, the more pressing question is who arranged the assassination. Who selected the shooter and who equipped him? Who decided on the method and the accomplice? Who armed the accomplice with his suicide belt? Who got them through security? It’s not enough for Al Qaeda to take responsibility. If Bush were assassinated and Al Qaeda took responsibility, we’d certainly want to know more about how the thing was managed. Same goes for Bhutto–in Pakistan’s as in every security apparatus, there are layers of deception and betrayal.

The remaining question, of course, is who really benefits.

Here are a couple of answers.

Musharraf: Well, sort of. He now has to deal with elections he’s postponed, and with an angry and restive population, at a time when he’s not so popular in any case. Although it wasn’t working quite as predicted, Bhutto had really been lured back to Pakistan to lend a sheen of legitimacy to his tarnished rule that would allow him to remain in power. Her assassination destabilizes him, although it rids him of a powerful potential rival.

Zardari: Of course, he’s widowed, and that is a terrible tragedy for him and his children. On the other hand, he’s running the PPP and he’s back in Pakistan. Even though Zardari is still facing charges concerning the assassination of Benazir’s brother, Mir Murtaza Bhutto, in 1996, it would take real chutzpah on Musharraf’s part to deport or arrest the widower of Benazir right now.

Nawaz Sharif: Bhutto’s main political rival, who spent his own long years of exile in the comfortable arms of his friends in Saudi Arabia. Here’s what Irfan Khawaja, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Notre Dame and a longtime Pakistan observer, says: “For Nawaz, Benazir’s death is the best of all possible worlds. His rival candidate is gone. He gets to express magnanimous sorrow at her untimely demise. He gets to complain about Musharraf’s incompetence and repression (while plotting his own).

“Since the media attention is all focused on the Bilawal/Zardari circus and on Musharraf, none of it is focused on him–which is to his benefit because he doesn’t easily bear scrutiny. And since the hard-core fundamentalists are being blamed for the killing, the army and police will be (temporarily) cracking down on them, thus giving Nawaz some needed breathing space. No one at this point will be able to focus on the fact that Nawaz is basically the Saudi choice for a proxy ruler for Pakistan, and as far as ‘democratic’ options are concerned, the Saudi choice now stands unopposed.” In thinking about Pakistan’s future, one should recall not only that Sharif is the darling of the Saudis but that as prime minister in 1999, he spearheaded an attempt to amend the Pakistani Constitution to enshrine Sharia law.

It’s hard to imagine a Pakistan without Benazir Bhutto mixing herself into it, either in person, or on the phone, or from her BlackBerry, obsessively powwowing with the party, bossing people around, meticulously arranging matters of politics and protocol, and endlessly chatting up her friends around the globe. Bhutto was a fascinating figure and, for many of her acquaintances all over the world, a point of entry into the swirling miasma of Pakistani politics.

One had grown familiar with the landscape of Pakistani politics, and even though Bhutto had been physically gone from the country for so long, she was still, as she said in an interview in September, psychologically there, both in her own mind and in the minds of the Pakistani people, with the PPP representing her. Before Bhutto was killed, one could do a fairly reasonable imitation of logical prediction about Pakistani politics. If this happens, then so will that. If this one changes, so will that one, and in circumscribed ways. Now, with this central figure removed, the whole situation seems disoriented.

With Benazir gone, it’s natural to imagine that her election would have somehow moved Pakistan in a new, more auspicious direction. She was indomitable and seductive, but there is no real, unsentimental evidence that she could or would have changed Pakistan’s political culture, not the record of her two failed premierships nor the “will” that leaves the PPP in the hands of either a teenager or her discredited widower. (Note by the way that when Benazir returned to Pakistan she expressly did not bring Zardari along with her–it’s illogical now that her bequest should bring him onto the scene and into the forefront.)

Indeed, Benazir was one of the immovable cogs of Pakistan’s static political culture, a culture that, with its continual boiling and roiling, convinces one that things are on the move when they are not. For the same reason, there isn’t much cause to predict that Pakistan will somehow come utterly unhinged because of her murder, although the chaos in the streets in the past few days is disturbing and will no doubt worsen on the news of the election’s postponement.

What one hopes for, perhaps with as little justification, is that the next elected president, given a broad mandate by the voters, will push Musharraf to step down. The judges the general summarily dismissed in declaring emergency rule in early November, including the brave and controversial chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, should be reinstated. And the postemergency amendments and decrees Musharraf hurriedly added to the Pakistani constitution ensuring that his actions could not be challenged in court should be nullified. It’s possible that a popularly elected Pakistani president will do this on his or her own. More likely, pressure would have to come from the outside. So far, the United States seems to have abandoned the judges–the State Department has not put the issue forward. It’s unlikely that Sharif’s Saudis will demand the judges’ reinstatement.

We should not forget Pakistan’s lawyers in our postassassination shock. In their pressed suits and neckties, they started the protests that weakened Musharraf and made Benazir’s return possible. Some of them, arrested under emergency rule, are still in custody. What they demonstrated for was the rule of law. Which seems to have been forgotten in all the high drama of the last week.

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