Monday, November 12, 2007
Pakistan's unanswered question
How popular is Benazir Bhutto?
It is one of the central questions in Pakistan politics right now. No one knows for sure. She would have the world believe she can mobilize millions of supporters at the click of her fingers, but so far she’s been unable to do so.
But Bhutto is a master of rhetoric and hyperbole. Take, for example, her claim that 3 million people turned out to greet her in Karachi last month as she returned to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile. The police and most media put the figure at closer to 200,000. We were there filming for CNN and certainly didn’t see crowds anywhere near 3 million.
Since then, her Pakistan People’s Party has been ruthlessly hounded by the authorities, amid a widespread crackdown on opposition by General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president. As a result, the PPP’s organizational structure has been decimated, with many activists behind bars, and has been unable to orchestrate rallies against the government. Last Friday’s failed demonstration in Rawalpindi – which was successfully blocked by security forces acting under Musharraf’s ongoing state of emergency decree -- state of was testament to just how crippled the PPP now is.
Now, Musharraf has gone on the offensive, suggesting Bhutto is not nearly as popular as she claims.
“Go into the rural areas of Punjab, go into the cities of Punjab, and see whether she has gained in popularity or gone down in popularity because of certain actions, certain comments she has been making,” he told a press conference in Islamabad this weekend –- implying that journalists would discover that many of the rural poor traditionally identified as being Bhutto supporters have in fact become disenchanted with her.
What the General didn’t spell out is that could be in part because she had started cozying up to him after years of being one of his harshest critics while in exile. That was all part of a power-sharing deal, being brokered by the United States. That deal now appears to lie in tatters, with Bhutto and Musharraf on a dangerous collision course.
But amid the ever-shifting sands of Pakistan politics, it’s almost impossible to gauge how each side is faring in the court of public opinion.
“It is very difficult to find out how popular she is,” Rahul Roy-Chaudhary of the International Institute of Strategic Studies said. “I mean, one basis of course is the last election, where the PPP came out as single largest political party. But since then several years have passed, and Benazir Bhutto has been in exile.
“Plus, of course, there is a prospective relationship deal between Benazir Bhutto and President Musharraf which would weaken her position and her public support,” he added.
Many of her traditional constituency would support her no matter what she does. Her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who during his career served as both the country’s president and its prime minister, is still revered here, and the Bhutto family name carries a lot of weight, especially in Sindh province. But some of her supporters have become disillusioned by the allegations of corruption and incompetence that dogged Benazir Bhutto’s first two terms as prime minister.
Lt. Gen. Talat Masood retired from the Pakistan army some years ago, but is a seasoned observer of politics here. He acknowledges Bhutto has a long way to go to convince the educated middle classes that she should be given another chance.
“She has a major problem of trust –- both with the political parties and with many with many people of Pakistan, so I think she has to revive that trust,” he said.
But reviving that trust will not be easy – first she has to get into office. She is threatening to conduct a “long march” to democracy, leading tens of thousands of supporters from Lahore to Islamabad.
There’s just one problem -– the military is again attempting to block her path, using the excuse that her life could be in danger from suicide bombers and pointing to the attack in Karachi the day she returned to Pakistan as proof. And that will mean that we won’t be able to see how many people she could actually get onto the streets –- and the central question in Pakistani politics will remain unanswered.
-- From Dan Rivers, CNN International Correspondent.
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