The United States and Britain had both been pushing for the return of Benazir Bhutto to her native Pakistan. The assumption in both capitals was that she would introduce democracy. After all, she emphasised in the many interviews and speeches she made in her enforced exile that she stood for democracy, and that she was a liberal-minded, secular, Western-educated person exactly fitted to lead her country out of military dictatorship and into the bright new democratic dawn, scotching the Taliban at the same time.
President Musharraf, the actual military dictator, was sceptical. He warned that Pakistan is not ready for such an experiment, which would only destabilise his and other countries. It is not hard to imagine the messages he must have been receiving from Washington and London, telling him in ever more insistent tones what to do, or else prepare to face the dire consequences. A dictator he may be, but he is not a cruel or inflexible man, if anything too much of a worrier. Against his instincts, he cut a deal. Corruption charges were outstanding against Benazir, and they were to be dropped in return for which she would cooperate politically, and together the two of them would form a base that could be described with only a small ladling of falsehood as democratic.
Corruption charges against the white hope of democracy and the necessary ally of the West in the fight against Islamism? Unfortunately yes. The Bhuttos are a family from Sind, with large land-holdings and the sort of influence that comes with feudal power. To promote themselves, they founded the Pakistan Peoples Party, outwardly a mass movement but actually a private vehicle for the family. In the 1970s Zulfikar Bhutto became prime minister and PPP leader, but he and his two sons came to violent ends because they themselves resorted to extortionate and thuggish means. In doing so, they made their fortunes. Swiss banks and other sources have provided irrefutable evidence that successive generations of the Bhutto family have abused their powers to salt away huge illegal funds. Benazir’s husband, Asif Zardari, is known as Mr Ten Percent for very good reasons. Pakistani friends tell me that the real motive behind Benazir’s return may have been to obtain signatures from family members and others permitting the release of blocked millions of dollars.
Over the last twenty two years, there has been no process of election for leadership of the PPP. The Bhuttos have simply appointed one among themselves to party leadership according to seniority or wealth or power within the family circle, in what amounts to a civil parody of military dictatorship. Benazir liked to trumpet that “Democracy is the best revenge,” but what this actually meant is that democracy is the best ladder available for Bhutto advancement.
In fact, the PPP really does stand for a liberal and secular state and would probably be the best political option in the future. But first, the party must hold a genuine primary election to determine who is its legitimate leader. The omens are not good. Asif Zardari has already staked out a position as leader, thus continuing the old assumption that the party is nothing more than a Bhutto fiefdom. Promotion to party chairmanship of the 19-year-old Bilawal Bhutto, a first year Oxford undergraduate who cannot even speak Urdu properly, bodes ill for him and for many others.
Democracy is surely the only viable alternative to the twin horrors of dictatorship and Islamism, and one day the country will enjoy it. The murder of Benazir and the PPP’s lack of legitimacy typify the obstacles blocking progress towards the desired goal. Washington and London made the elementary mistake of thinking that their recommendations would be enough to re-order reality. Now Musharraf stands between Pakistan and disaster.