For the record Hassan Abbas, Harvard University research fellow
Bracing for Bhutto: Pakistan prepares for former prime minister’s return
Pakistan prepares for former prime minister’s return
Metro International; October 18, 2007
INTERVIEW. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto is coming home today. What awaits upon her return is anybody’s guess.
Pakistan’s first elected female leader has spent the last eight years in a self-imposed exile, after her government was overthrown under charges of corruption and mismanagement. A deal with sitting President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and has promised to give up command of the army if he secures a new term as president, has provided Bhutto amnesty from the corruption charges and all but paves the way toward a return to power as Prime Minister of a three-pronged government that may include Musharraf as president and a third military branch.
Returning to power may be the least of the popular Bhutto’s problems, however, as she returns to a now-nuclear nation that faces conflicts on its borders with both India and Afghanistan, enduring poverty and an increasing militant presence that already has marked her for death.
But, according to Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at the Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom and International Security Program at Harvard University who served as an official under Bhutto from 1995 to 1996 and Musharraf from 1999 to 2000, Bhutto may be Pakistan’s best shot at true democracy. Having lost her father, Pakistan People’s Party founder and former Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, after his execution in 1979 and having lost two of her brothers to politically motivated killings, Bhutto’s stake in Pakistan’s future is quite large.
How is the return of Benazir Bhutto being received in Pakistan?
There are all sorts of festivities in Karachi, with people coming from all over Pakistan just to welcome her. In the next phase, the political campaign will start, and it is not a given that she will garner as much support as she had previously. In the middle class, there is frustration about the fact that she is representing a party that has always been against military dictatorship and, now, has taken a political deal. The view will be much different among rural Pakistanis. They still think of the dream of Bhutto, her father and all her party stands for.
Considering your assertion that the two strongest members of the ruling “troika” always seem to behead the weakest, is there a concern that a newly demilitarized Musharraf and the military branch of the government will overwhelm Bhutto if she becomes Prime Minister?
It depends. We may not see a repeat of the troika of the 1990s because we have the benefit of that experience. Benazir Bhutto knows what happened the last time and knows that one of the keys to success is the division of power. When it comes to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, the tribal belt and all of the Taliban insurgencies, I think Musharraf and the military will call all of the shots. On Kashmir, India-Pakistan relations and the tribal areas, the military will define its policies, so long as Benazir goes along with Musharraf’s view. When it comes to senior appointments, especially since Musharraf appointed so many military personnel to power during his time, that could be an issue of friction. Through the passage of time, I think Benazir Bhutto and the Parliament will have more power because the people want rule of law. I see that happening, having spoken with Benazir, because she is very aware of the constraints she is facing.
From your discussions with Benazir, how is she feeling about her return to Pakistan and the prospects of a new government?
I’ve got a good feeling about it; though, I’m personally critical of the way she handled the deal with Musharraf and told her so. She has a convincing point of view as well. She was telling me that this is the only way a transition to real democracy can take place. However, she is really concerned about her security because of a threat by [Taliban commander] Baitullah Masood, who is giving sanctuary to al-Qaida and said my suicide bombers are there. She is very committed to being different this time, to establishing democratic institutions in the long run.
Even after I told her that her deal with Musharraf will have an impact on her position, she said “I want democracy even if I don’t win.” She has learned quite a bit. She has been away from Pakistan for eight long years, her father was hanged, her two brothers were killed — she has sacrificed a lot.
She expressed to myself and other Pakistani-Americans openly that her first decisions should be about education and health care, and I hope she remembers these things when she gets to Pakistan.