Benazir Bhutto (born 1953) became prime minister of Pakistan in 1988. Heir to the political legacy of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (prime minister from 1971 to 1977), she was the first woman in modern times to head the government of an Islamic state.
Benazir Bhutto assumed the prime ministership of Pakistan after 11 years of struggle against the military regime of General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. She had taken up the leadership of the Pakistan People's Party— founded by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was deposed by General Zia in 1977 and executed in 1979. Over the following decade Bhutto mobilized opposition to the martial law regime, spending nearly six of those years in prison or detention. In a national election following the death of General Zia in August 1988, the People's Party won a plurality of seats in the National Assembly. Bhutto was invited by Pakistan's President Ghulam Ishaq Khah to form a government and was sworn in as prime minister on December 2, 1988.
Benazir Bhutto was born in Karachi, Pakistan, on June 21, 1953. She received her early education in Pakistan. From 1969 to 1973 she attended Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she obtained a B.A. degree cum laude in comparative government. Between 1973 and 1977 Bhutto read politics, philosophy, and economics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. In December 1976 she was elected president of Oxford Union, becoming the first Asian woman to head the prestigious debating society.
Bhutto's plans to enter Pakistan's foreign service ended with the deposition of her father and a decision to dedicate herself to restoring a democratically-elected government. Despite lengthy periods of imprisonment and her self-exile in Europe beginning in January 1984, she directed the rebuilding and restructuring of the People's Party. She traveled widely, presenting the case against the Zia regime, attacking its violations of civil and human rights. In Pakistan, opponents of the regime defied the government's ban on political activity despite mass arrests and intimidation. While relentless in her criticism, Bhutto counseled her loyalists against any resort to armed confrontation, preferring instead to wrest power through the political process.
Martial law ended December 30, 1985, but the civilian government that Zia, as president and army chief of staff, had installed three months earlier was based on nonparty elections. Hoping to revive the campaign for representative government, Bhutto returned to Pakistan in April 1986. Traveling across the country, she attracted crowds that rivaled any in Pakistan's history.
On May 29, 1988, President Zia abruptly dissolved the Parliament and dismissed his hand-picked but increasingly independent-minded prime minister, Mohammad Junejo. Fears that Zia would somehow keep the People's Party from contesting forthcoming elections were removed by his sudden death. Yet the People's Party's failure in the November election to win an outright parliamentary majority resulted in a politically vulnerable Bhutto-led coalition government. An alliance of opposition parties made it difficult for the prime minister to advance the kind of legislative program that had been promised to deal with the country's pressing problems. In particular, matters of social justice, including repeal of fundamentalist laws considered degrading to women, could not be enacted. It was politically expedient to avoid antagonizing religious elements, some of whom believed it "un-Islamic" for a woman to be the head of government. Faced with severe financial constraints, the prime minister also made little progress in bringing reforms to the education and health sectors or in curbing bureaucratic corruption.
Bhutto took care not to offend a military establishment which had allowed the return to a democratic system and refrained from direct interference in domestic politics. The army was appeased in the area of military spending and given wide latitude in formulating and implementing certain foreign and domestic policies, most notably Pakistan's role in orchestrating the Afghan war and terms for peace. Her government's dependence on the military increased with the outbreak of serious civil disorders and violence arising from persisting ethnic and regional antagonisms made more lethal by weapons siphoned off from the Afghan conflict.
To her credit, Bhutto released political prisoners and took other steps to restore fundamental human rights. Heavy restrictions on the press were lifted along with limitations on assembly by unions and student groups. She also gained stature for her success in outmaneuvering the combined opposition in its tactics to oust her from office. Unlike her father, who favored socialist rhetoric and nationalized many economic institutions and activities, Bhutto emphasized economic growth and argued for decreased government subsidies and greater privatization in the economy. During her tenure, the prime minister demonstrated considerable skill in winning international diplomatic and economic support for Pakistan and effectively used the Kashmir dispute with India to rally domestic public sentiment without unnecessarily inflaming it. Among Pakistan's leaders she was considered the most inclined to strive for improved relations with India.
Bhutto married Asif Ali Zardari on December 18, 1987. The son of a politically active, wealthy landowning family from the Sindh Province, Zardari's background was similar to that of his wife—not surprising since Bhutto acceded to a traditionally arranged marriage. They had two children.
On August 6, 1990, President Ghulam Ishaq Khah, apparently supported by the Pakistan military, suddenly dismissed Bhutto from the office of prime minister. Citing government corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power, Khah dissolved the National Assembly and declared a state of emergency. Bhutto called her dismissal "illegal and unconstitutional" and worried about the fate of her People's Party. The caretaker government continued its campaign against Bhutto by arresting her husband October 10, charging kidnapping, extortion, and loan fraud. In elections held on October 24 Bhutto's party suffered a major defeat. The victorious alliance named Nawaz Sharif, a conservative industrialist, to be prime minister.
Bhutto, vowing to seek office in elections to come, spent the next few years trying to regain support and political favor. She served as chairperson of the standing committee on foreign affairs of the National Assembly and was again elected to the position of prime minister of Pakistan in October 1993.
In November of 1996, Bhutto was again ousted from her post, this time by Farooq Leghari, the man she had chosen for president. Again accused of nepotism and corruption, Bhutto was placed under house arrest, though never officially charged with anything. Less than a year later, Bhutto again attempted to regain power.
In Pakistan's general elections in February 1997, Nawaz Sharif celebrated a landslide victory over Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML) won a resounding 134 of 217 seats in the National Assembly while Bhutto saw the PPP reduced to a mere 19 seats and virtually erased from the key Punjab provincial assembly.
In an interview with Time magazine in March 1997, Bhutto said, "If the elections had been fair, free, and impartial, the Pakistan People's Party would have won on the basis of the development work we have done, on the basis of restoring peace, of increasing education and health expenditures, bringing the deficit down, repaying debt and bringing peace to Karachi. The results were engineered…. The whole thing was a fraud for the people of Pakistan."
In her defeat, Bhutto said she no longer desired the prime minister's post. "My father worked from morning to night. I worked from morning to night. My father, what did he get? He got hanged. What did I get? I got slandered," she said. "Let there be a new leadership. I want my party to win the next elections, and I will help my party prepare to win. But I don't want to be prime minister."
Further Reading on Benazir Bhutto
Benazir Bhutto is the author of two books, Foreign Policy in Perspective (1978) and her autobiography, Daughter of the East (1989). Several collections of her speeches and works have been compiled, including The Way Out (1988). Three books about Prime Minister Bhutto have been published in India: Benazir's Pakistan (1989), edited by M. D. Dharamdasani; The Trial of Benazir (1989), by Rafiq Zakaria; and Benazir Bhutto: Opportunities and Challenges (1989), by P. L. Bhola. The News International, a publication of the Jang Group, located at <http: //www.jang.group.com>, gives up-to-date news of Pakistan's political climate. There is also a biography of Bhutto located on the World Wide Web entitled Imran-net's Biography of Benazir Bhutto, which gives general background information on the ex-prime minister.
Useful for an reader's appreciation of the difficulties facing a woman in political life is Women of Pakistan (1987), by Khawar Mumtaz and Farida Shaheed. Additionally, Emma Duncan's Breaking the Curfew (1989) presents a highly revealing picture of Pakistan's troubled political scene.