Bhutto Charisma Still Holds - Despite Political Blunders

As Benazir Bhutto prepares to land in Pakistan Thursday after a nine-year self-imposed exile, Pakistanis know her return qualifies as a major political event. The party her father founded almost four decades ago is still a living entity. Despite all the corruption scandals against her, the party cadres, even if they are fewer and somewhat decrepit, are still there. The cadres and the party supporters will no doubt put up a grand welcome for their party leader.

Benazir carries the name that has for the longest time ruled the hearts of the largest chunk in the Pakistani electorate. Even for its detractors and the authors of guided-democracy perpetually engaged in landscaping Pakistani democracy, the Bhutto name cannot be ignored.

It is an irony of fate that those very forces that led the khaki logic of 2002, which dictated that Benazir Bhutto's electoral victory would be detrimental to Pakistan's interests, have now concluded the opposite. In a recent television interview, General Pervez Musharraf acknowledged that despite the corruption of the PPP, it is a party that enjoys national support.

The khaki's political re-engineering project did not entirely succeed.

Musharraf's eight years failed to discard the Benazir and Nawaz factors. No new political leadership emerged. Instead, the charisma of the old survived. Politics does not lend itself to 'engineering'.

It is the intangible charisma, among other factors, that builds the support for popular politicians. In Pakistani politics, topping the list of charismatic politicians is the Bhutto name. Despite the long list of Benazir Bhutto's political blunders, corruption scandals and other contenders for political charisma, the name passed from father to daughter still bears the charismatic hold, though markedly reduced.

Clean logic doesn't explain charisma. The chaos of the complex, the non-elite reality which sentiments of a large section of the society's 'have-nots' calculate, the lived experiences of the marginalized that defies the dominant reason-based discourse are the factors that comprise the context within which charisma survives. Also, it is a life afflicted with tragedy and turmoil, one that lives through the pain and the anguish and still survives to play a role on the public stage. This is what becomes the stuff of charisma.

Charisma-struck Bhutto supporters tend to only selectively register the flaws of their leader. Their perception is distorted by the triple tragedy of death of a father lost at the gallows, a brother bulleted and another poisoned, forced ouster from her legitimately earned prime ministerial position, and Benazir's own years in prison and a near decade away from her homeland.

The other side of the Bhutto reality, her supporters have long ignored: the corruption scandals and the intolerance and inefficiencies of her governments. The Zardari factor too, is disregarded. Her Washington connection pales before her many positive assets.

Then there is the broader power context of Pakistan, which with its many contradictions and many excesses takes away peoples' ability to move beyond the realm of heroes and villains. The public lives the reality of the morality of the ruling classes that is constructed on shifting sands. If it's a choice between your crook versus my crook, the public will rather opt for their own crook.

The cost of the absence of a process, which helps to weed out the bad and lead in the good on the political horizon, is the rise of cult figures. Yet, whatever popular support exists for Benazir it is not merely a manifestation of blind faith. Instead it makes manifest the acceptability by the public of what they believe to be the lesser evil. Much of the middle class analysis may appear to be an Orwellian chant of the advantaged elite.

Benazir returns to yet again benefit from the political support that this charisma gives her. Her dealings with the uniformed president are unlikely to be a support-loser for Benazir.

Her core support will remain intact. The issues of constitutional democracy, rule of law and judicial independence have not yet become important political determinants of Pakistani politics. These issues have only captured the imagination of the urban population, which also recognises that in Pakistan's current political scenario these will remain parallel to and not integrated in Pakistani mainstream politics.

The political choice made by the man who was the star of the post-March movement for judicial independence has reiterated this reality. In a recent interview, Aitzaz Ahsan said he will stand by his leader and will contest on the PPP ticket. He is okay with his leader's deal with the man he argued repeatedly must vacate the presidential position. By his political support for Benazir, Aitzaz has endorsed Benazir's position that for a smooth transition, engaging with a uniformed president is okay.

In the 2002 elections, the PPP polled 29 percent of the votes cast. The response to her post-arrival politics in the various provinces, and especially in the NWFP, will indicate Benazir's likely electoral support in the coming elections.

Meanwhile Benazir's public support and her charisma factor notwithstanding, her arrival in Pakistan will pose hurdles for her that she must cross at least in her return to active electoral politics.

One, the nervousness of the Musharraf government and of the ruling party as Benazir opts for active politics. There is room for Bhutto-Musharraf tension given that there is no comprehensive political accord between the two. She entered into an only-issue-specific engagement with general Musharraf. Hence, once on the election trail, her party's traditional political positions vis-'-vis the army in politics, the PML-Q and the MQM will also be articulated.

Also, Musharraf's stated displeasure at Bhutto's pre-election return may mutually queer the pitch. In short, it's not a guaranteed Musharraf-Bhutto smooth sailing ahead. Musharraf's right hand men of the PML-Q are unlikely to opt for any but a policy of political bickering with the PPP.

Two, there will be the media trial that will be conducted on issues ranging from corruption to engaging with a military ruler and from the Washington connection to her pro-Washington position on the global war on terrorism and on extremism within Pakistan. The media has repeatedly raised the paradoxes of Benazir's political career. It is a media that generally is both sympathetic personally and harsh politically towards Benazir.

Meanwhile, armed groups in Waziristan have repeatedly issued death threats to Benazir for what they view as pro-Washington policies against terrorism.

Three, the return of the Sharifs to Pakistan could potentially cut into her vote bank, especially in Punjab and in the country's urban constituency. As the voice of a genuine national level opposition, the Sharifs pose the biggest challenge to the Bhutto bid for power. As a party positioning itself as an anti-establishment nationalist democratic party, the PML-N is the flag bearer of 21st century radical politics of Pakistan. Meanwhile, the ruling party's political contours, beyond being a Musharraf-mentored party, have yet to emerge.

However the Bhutto name fares in electoral politics, for Pakistan what is relevant is Benazir's ability to deliver on the crucial challenge that Pakistan's state, society and politics faces. The crucial challenge is of being able to effectively arrest the growing violently promoted internal ideological and political discord. Her existing credentials to meet this challenge do not appear to be strong, though her charisma endures.

(Nasim Zehra is a Pakistani national security strategist and columnist. She can be reached at nasimzehra@gmail.com)


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