Benazir Bhutto: The Exile's Return

Benazir Bhutto: her history, life story and her return to from exile to Pakistan.

By Amy Wilentz
Illustration by Chang Park
After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged, Benazir, then 26 years old, took up the reins of his political organization and became an important opposition figure during those turbulent days.General Zia sensed her potential immediately; Muslim South Asia is a place where dynastic power is still considered natural, even if the inheritor of the mantle turns out to be a young woman. As soon as her father was imprisoned, Zia placed Benazir under house arrest. He liked arresting her, it turned out. It became a habit. In 1981, he had her jailed on the invented suspicion that she and a group run by Mir had participated in the hijacking of a Pakistan International Airlines plane. All told, Zia kept Benazir in jail, under house arrest or in exile for eight years. (Benazir’s younger brother, Shahnawaz Bhutto, was poisoned on the French Riviera in 1985. Although his murder was never solved, many believe it was masterminded by Zia.)Three years later, in one of the Bhutto story’s hairpin turns of fate, Zia himself died when his jet crashed under mysterious circumstances, killing all 30 people on board, including the American ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel. (An underground group run by Mir Bhutto was suspected in the crash.)Four months after Zia died, Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister of Pakistan at the age of 35, the first woman to lead an Islamic country in modern history."In 1987 and 1988, within 12 months, she got married, wrote a book, built a house, had a baby, ran a nationwide election campaign and took her first job: as prime minister of a country of a hundred million people. Not bad," says Peter Galbraith, author of The End of Iraq and a Harvard and Oxford classmate of Bhutto’s.Bhutto never doubted that a woman could be elected in Pakistan. "I thought it was the most natural thing in the world," she says. "My father never made a discrimination between the girls and the boys in the family. He never said, ‘Because you’re a girl, you’re not going to be considered the eldest.’ I sat at the head of the table because I was the eldest. I thought it was the same all over Pakistan. It was a big shock when I found out it wasn’t so."In the end, though, her gender was not the important liability. The structure of Pakistan’s government has been part of the problem: The president has the right to dismiss the premier. What this has meant is that political or military pressure exerted on the president can and frequently does result in the dismissal of a prime minister.And there is also the matter of Bhutto’s character. She is, as she titled her 1989 autobiography, a "daughter of destiny," the inheritor of her father’s legacy. Her beloved papa was not only a visionary leader, an avatar of progressive political ideals in South Asia and a hypnotic and eloquent orator, but he was also a legendary scrapper an inveterate wheeler-dealer and a cobbler of baroque, smoke-filled back room arrangements.While her father was in Pakistan, pushing to reform the constitution and to consolidate his political power, Benazir was in graduate school, studying politics, philosophy and economics, and doing — in miniature — political gymnastics similar to his in order to become president of the Oxford Union. After one of her Oxford Union campaigns, detractors said she had violated campaign rules. Whatever the truth, it was early evidence of her hardheaded determination. When she wanted something — no matter the odds, no matter the ethics — she would work very hard to get it.Charges of CorruptionIn 1987, she entered a fateful alliance. Her mother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, arranged her marriage to Zardari, a good-looking playboy from a wealthy merchant family in Sindh, Bhutto’s home province. "[Benazir] was running for president and she felt she couldn’t really run as a single woman in a Muslim country, so she quite deliberately had her mother find her a suitable husband," said one observer. "She would have been better off marrying for love."Soon after his wife became prime minister, Zardari allegedly became involved in schemes to skim money from the national coffers. In the Pakistani press, he was known as Mr. Ten Percent for the amount he reportedly demanded from contractors seeking business with the government.

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