Why Benazir failed as youngest Prime Minister of Pakistan

ali.zaidi@dunyatv.tv'Posted by

Benazir Bhutto had  returned to Pakistan on April 11, 1986, amid a spectacular show of public support in Lahore, after staying in a self-imposed exile for around 3 years. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was the only political party in the country that could have led the joint democratic front, Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD), against General Zia’s regime at that time. Being the head of the party, Benaizr certainly was the only politician in a position to take the dictatorial regime head on.

It was a time when ‘the third wave of democratization’ was in motion throughout Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. The global political environment was just the right one for the return of democracy. The removal of Zia, through a plane crash in August 1988, from the political spectrum of Pakistan thus paved the way for democracy and PPP, being the only political party with support at grass-roots levels throughout the country, benefited the most from this situation. On this day, December 2, 27 years ago, Benazir Bhutto became the youngest prime minister of Pakistan, the first female head of state in any Muslim country since Razia Sultana.

Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul
Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul

However, it wasn’t really a return of democracy to Pakistan. In what Mohammad Waseem calls a form of ‘diarchy’, Benazir Bhutto never really was in charge of the situation. Though she had won the election in 1988, she had not been able to win a majority in Punjab, where she was being opposed by the Islami Jumhoori Ittehad (IJI), led by Nawaz Sharif. The IJI was not just being backed by the military establishment, it was a brainchild of the then Director-General (DG) of Pakistan’s all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Hamid Gul even confessed forming the party in one of his interviews in 2012. Nawaz Sharif became the Chief Minister of Punjab as a result of this election and used all his power as the Punjab CM to undermine Benazir’s.

Meanwhile, she was forced by General Mirza Aslam Beg to stay away from almost all the major issues concerning the government. For example, Benazir agreed not to interfere in the Afghan policy. She was not allowed to have a say in the military appointments. To add insult to the injury, she was forced to carry on with Zia’s Foreign Minister Yaqoob Ali Khan, who, according to some sources, Benazir had not even met before the announcement of the cabinet.

General Mirza Aslam Beg
General Mirza Aslam Beg

The infamous 58-2(B) was yet another tool in the establishment’s hands since President Ghulam Ishaq Khan had always been their man and held the power to dislodge the government anytime using this clause, added into the constitution through the Eighth amendment introduced by General Zia ul-Haque. In fact, all the concessions that Beg was able to extract from Benazir Bhutto were mainly due to this magic wand, in absence of which the military might not have been able to exercise its power from behind the scenes.

At the same time, Benazir Bhutto’s strength was hampered by the defections from her own party. Not only had she angered many of the senior party workers in a bid to strengthen her grip on the affairs of the PPP, she had even alienated the likes of Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, who was one of the first few leaders to join Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s ‘slain’ father. As a matter of fact, Jatoi, or anyone for that matter in Sindh, wasn’t able to shake PPP’s ground in terms of elect-ability. The dissenters, however, surely had the strength to put a dent on PPP’s reputation as the party leading all the democratic forces of the country. Jatoi formed his own National People’s Party (NPP) and joined hands with the IJI.

Nawaz Sharif
Nawaz Sharif

The military establishment, with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan on its side, certainly had enough power to do what it willed without even taking into consideration what the PM wanted. The only way this pressure by the establishment could’ve been neutralized was thus through a joint front put up by all the political forces combined but Benazir had already closed the doors on such a compromise by attempting to dislodge Nawaz Sharif’s provincial government in the very beginning of the term. Nawaz, throughout this tenure, used all his strength to engage the federal government in continuous confrontation and Benazir spent most of her time and energies responding to the criticism by her Chief Minister.

A serious mistake that Benazir Bhutto made at this time was letting Beg know of her disliking of the pro-Zia officers in the military. She asked him to provide her with a list of officers who were in Zia’s good books. Beg warned her not to interfere in the army appointments or promotions and went on to advise her to form a National Security Council that would enable the civilian and military leaderships to have better coordination between them. Benazir rejected this suggestion outright.

However, the death blow came from Karachi, as usual. PPP had formed an alliance with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). The 59-point pact between the two parties signed in 1988 included increased job quota for the urban Sindhis (read Muhajirs), closer ties between the Sindhis and the Muhajirs and the repatriation of around 250,000 Biharis, still living in camps in Bangladesh. The Sindhi population already resented the more dynamic and educated Urdu-speaking class and, therefore, the opposition by the Sindhi nationalist parties, as well as Sindhi nationalists within the PPP, did not let the promise of the repatriation of the Biharis to be fulfilled. As a result, MQM broke away from the alliance and joined forces with the IJI.

Pucca Quila Hyderabad
Pucca Quila Hyderabad

Violent incidents of ethnic infighting engulfed Karachi and Hyderabad after MQM’s dissent and on May 27, 1990, Pucca Qila happened. On that day, Sindhi police officials opened fire on Muhajir civilians, killing some 40 Muhajirs, claiming the presence of snipers in the area. However, the claim was never substantiated and these mass-killings finally led to the fall of the government. In July 1990, Mirza Aslam Beg chaired a Corps Commanders’s meeting at the General Head-Quarters Rawalpindi, where the generals reportedly told him that the PPP government was not tolerable for them anymore. On August 6, 1990, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dislodged PPP government citing corruption and violence in Karachi and Hyderabad including the Pucca Qila incident.

Thus ended the 20-month term of the youngest prime minister of Pakistan. Benazir was a darling of the crowd and could gather thousands of supporters upon one call but she was never really a smart politician who knew how to outmaneuver her opponents politically. Her ego didn’t let her compromise with the senior party leaders like Ghulam Mustaf Jatoi and Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, though the two were also suspected of being Zia’s men (Jatoi allegedly met Zia, along with Ghulam Mustafa Khar, to convince him that the two of them could run the PPP in Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s absence immediately after the coup d’etat of 1977 while the Pirzada was alleged of having misled Bhutto in the infamous Muhammad Ali Kasuri murder case, in which Bhutto had been sentenced to death and was represented by Pirzada before the court). She was unable to co-opt Nawaz Sharif, something that could have delayed her fall. Most importantly, she wasn’t able to resist the Sindhi nationalist elements within her party; the reason that dealt the final blow to her regime.

But are the politicians ready to learn from their mistakes? I think, yes. Except for Imran Khan.


P.S. Benazir Bhutto’s first term in government has been analyzed in more detail by Christophe Jaffrelot in his book The Pakistan Paradox and the article written above frequently quotes from this book.

One comment

  1. Very nice article backed up with the true figures. I still remember when she came to power in 1988. It was just SPRING in the air. People were dancing on the streets of Karachi with flags of PPP in their hands from all backgrounds. After Zia’s brutal 11 years in power, all of a sudden these music bands came in PTV like Vital Signs/Junoon/Strings and many more. I wish the remains of Zia should have given her full give years and she’d have turned Pakistan around 180 degrees.

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