Skip to main content

Commentary: Bhutto dynasty survives

  • Story Highlights
  • Bhutto family's role in Pakistani politics is far from over, writes Husain Haqqani
  • Benazir Bhutto's murder adds to Musharraf's legitimacy problems, author says
  • U.S. may have to review its policy of trusting Musharraf's regime, he writes
  • Bhutto's death shows need for a moderate Muslim democracy, writer says
  • Next Article in World »
By Husain Haqqani
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

Husain Haqqani, a professor at Boston University, is Co-Chair of the Hudson Institute's Project on Islam and Democracy. He is the author of the Carnegie Endowment book "Pakistan Between Mosque and Military" and served as an adviser to Ms Bhutto. His wife, Farahnaz Ispahani, is a PPP candidate for parliamentary elections.


Husain Haqqani: The Bhutto family's role in Pakistani politics is far from over.

BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- In 1979, two years after seizing power from Pakistan's first elected leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, military dictator General Ziaul Haq executed him after a show trial. That did not end the elder Bhutto's influence.

His daughter Benazir, then only 24, took over the mantle of leadership. For three decades, Pakistan has witnessed a struggle between the country's military-led establishment and populist forces led by the Bhutto family. Benazir Bhutto's assassination is the latest twist in that conflict.

The Bhuttos generate a lot of passion both for and against. In the days to come we will read and hear many facts, factoids and falsehoods about the strengths, weaknesses and paradoxes of Benazir Bhutto. To me these are merely the subtext. The headline is that the Pakistani establishment's nemesis has been removed from the scene, ostensibly by terrorists who have flourished in establishment-dominated Pakistan.

But the Bhutto family's role in Pakistani politics is far from over.

Other members of the Bhutto family likely will become the rallying point for those who refuse to let generals, civil servants and technocrats manage Pakistan like a corporation rather than letting politicians lead it as a nation.

Benazir Bhutto had the combination of political brilliance, charisma, popular support and international recognition that made her a credible democratic alternative to Pervez Musharraf. Her elimination from the scene is not only a personal loss to millions of Pakistanis who loved and admired her. It exposes Pakistan's vulnerability, and the urgent need to deal with it.

Bhutto's assassination could be a setback to populist-democratic forces. But it also has the potential to mobilize strong backlash against the militarist and overly centralized paradigm of the Pakistani state.

Getting through elections that his King's Party would almost certainly lose if they were fair is not the only challenge facing Musharraf right now. With the help and support of the military, he can weather any immediate challenge to his authority. But Bhutto's murder adds to Musharraf's legitimacy problems.

Her assassination highlights the fears about Pakistan that she voiced over the last several months. Years of dictatorship and sponsorship of Islamist extremism have made this nuclear-armed Muslim nation of 160 million people a safe haven for terrorists who threaten the world. She had the courage and vision to challenge both terrorism and the authoritarian culture that nurtured it. Her assassination has already exacerbated Pakistan's instability and uncertainty, inciting riots and anger.

The tragedy of December 27 may have been the work of a terrorist, but for Bhutto's supporters the government is not without blame. Musharraf refused to accept Bhutto's requests for an investigation in the earlier attempt on her life on October 18, assisted by the FBI or Scotland Yard, both of which have greater competence in analyzing forensic evidence than Pakistan's notoriously corrupt and incompetent law enforcement. The circumstances of the first assassination attempt remain mired in mystery, as has often been the case with murders of Pakistan's high profile political personalities.

Television images soon after Bhutto's assassination showed fire engines hosing down the crime scene, in what can only be considered a calculated washing away of forensic evidence. Bhutto had publicly expressed fears that pro-extremist elements within Pakistan's security services were complicit in plans to eliminate her. Instead of addressing those fears, Musharraf cynically rejected Bhutto's request for international security consultants to be hired at her own expense.

This cynicism on the part of the Pakistani authorities is now causing most of Bhutto's supporters to vent anger against the Musharraf regime for her tragic death.

The United States might not be willing at this stage to review its policy of trusting the military-dominated regime led by Musharraf to secure and stabilize Pakistan. But as Musharraf becomes less and less credible in the eyes of his own people, it might have to.

The U.S. should use its influence, acquired with more than $10 billion in economic and military aid, to persuade Pakistan's military to loosen its grip on power and negotiate with politicians with popular support, most prominently Bhutto's successors in her Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif. Instead of calibrating terrorism, as Musharraf appears to have done, Pakistan must work toward eliminating terrorism, as Bhutto demanded.

The postponement of parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for January 8, to February 18 as a consequence of the assassination has accentuated the Pakistani opposition's doubts about Musharraf's intentions to share or relinquish power.

Some international election monitoring teams, including the National Democratic Institute and more recently the International Republican Institute are refusing to monitor the election unless serious changes are made to the poll rigging structure already in place for the benefit of the King's Party, PML-Q.

The Pakistan People's Party led in opinion polls, followed by Sharif's PML-N even before Bhutto's assassination. Now the PPP is likely to benefit from a strong sympathy vote. The appointment of Bhutto's 19-year old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as co-chairmen of the party will help keep the party unified. It will also help ride the sympathy wave.

The government would appear ungracious and would lose votes if it goes too far in attacking the widower and the son who have just suffered a major personal loss. Pakistanis are an emotional people, and the national sentiment is now against Musharraf. Without major concessions to the opposition, Musharraf's legitimacy problems will continue to grow and a flawed election would only exacerbate his lack of credibility.


In her death, as in her life, Benazir Bhutto has drawn attention to the need for building a moderate Muslim democracy in Pakistan that cares for its people and allows them to elect its leaders. The war against terrorism, she repeatedly argued, cannot be won without mobilizing the people of Pakistan against Islamist extremists, and bringing Pakistan's security services under civilian control.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Pakistani PoliticsBenazir BhuttoPervez MusharrafNawaz SharifPakistan

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print