Returning Bhutto vows to restore democracy
Two decades after she returned from exile and became Pakistan's first female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto is due to return to her homeland this morning and challenge once again for its political leadership.
Ms Bhutto, who has twice held short, interrupted terms as Pakistan's premier, was expected to take an Emirates flight from Dubai to the port city of Karachi and begin preparations to lead her Pakistan's People's Party (PPP) in forthcoming parliamentary elections. "Tomorrow at this time we will be on board the plane for Karachi, which is a day that I and all the people in Pakistan who love democracy and who believe in fundamental human rights have been waiting for," she said yesterday.
For all the apparent similarities of today's return and its precedent 21 years ago, in truth they are very different affairs.
In 1986, Ms Bhutto, then aged 32, was leading a fight for democracy against a military dictator who had led a coup and executed her father. She was welcomed by a crowd of more than a million supporters in Lahore. This time she is returning scarred by allegations of corruption, with a less than impressive record in office and amid damaging claims that she has made a Faustian pact with another military leader to satisfy her own ambitions.
That she is returning to Pakistan at all is the result of a behind-the-scenes deal Ms Bhutto has hammered out with Pakistan's current military leader, General Pervez Musharraf. That deal, forged under the eyes of the US and Britain, was agreed to by the vulnerable general as the best way for him to hang on to power as his popularity tumbled. The arrangement includes an amnesty that clears Ms Bhutto of a series of outstanding charges.
In turn Ms Bhutto argues she is Pakistan's best chance of regaining some semblance of democracy. The arrangement she has come to with General Musharraf – the full details of which remain unannounced – is the price that enables her to challenge for a third term as prime minister. "My return heralds for the people of Pakistan the turn of the wheel from dictatorship to democracy, from exploitation to empowerment, from violence to peace," she said.
The PPP said that it expects up to one million people will turn out to welcome its leader and Karachi was last night bedecked with green, red and black banners bearing Ms Bhutto's image. A bullet-proof, customised transport container is to be used to transport Ms Bhutto from the airport to the grave of Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and thence to her ancestral home in Larkana. A journey that ought to take five hours could take more than a day.
Ms Bhutto and her family have paid a high price in grief and pain for their place at the forefront of Pakistani politics. She was still in her twenties when her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the serving prime minister, was ousted, jailed and then hanged by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.
Ms Bhutto and her mother spent many months under arrest both before and after his execution, and her father's supporters suffered widespread persecution. Ms Bhutto's two brothers have been killed and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, jailed.
Indeed, Ms Bhutto's return to Pakistan may not be the entirely smooth process she and her supporters wish it to be. The country's Supreme Court has said the amnesty signed by General Musharraf could be reversed. Just like another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan last month only to be deported immediately, Ms Bhutto could herself find an unpleasant surprise awaits her. It is clear she believes she has history and destiny on her side. What she cannot have is certainty.