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The Legacy of Pakistan's Iron Lady


The 27th of December marks the 13th anniversary of possibly the most controversial day in the history of Pakistan: the dramatic, deeply moving, unsolved murder of a courageous titan and true trail blazer. Benazir Bhutto, leader of the centre-left PPP and the 11th and 13th Prime Minister of Pakistan, was smashing barriers long before most, and approached a status at home and abroad reserved only for the finest of characters. Whether it was becoming the first woman to lead a Muslim nation, the first leader to give birth in, or the first person to defy the odds and reset Pakistan on the path of decentralisation and democracy, her achievements represent the best of Pakistan, and her adversaries the worst. Her 2 terms as Prime Minister, in 1988 and 1993, tell a story that is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago: Pakistan’s struggle for democracy.


In her book ‘Daughter of the East’, she documented the downfall and death of her father (Prime Minister and PPP leader) in 1979, at the helm of the ruthless General Zia. Determined to take him down, throughout the next decade she fought to rebuild the PPP, defiant in the face of misogyny, years of imprisonment (where she was denied proper medical care), the detention of family and friends, and eventual exile. Under Zia, Pakistan fell further into autocratic disarray. Political parties and gatherings were banned, citizen rights were all but removed, wrongly in name of ‘Islam’, the judiciary was unashamedly biased and Martial Law declared with impunity. Over time, however, Zia looked increasingly vulnerable as dissatisfaction simmered away, until it all boiled over after his death in a plane crash in 1988. Seizing on the moment decades in preparation, Benazir returned from London to Pakistan to huge support- the journey from the airport to her home, normally less than an hour, took over 9 hours because of the number of supporters who swarmed her on arrival.


It then comes as no surprise that, during elections that were held under international pressure, Benazir’s PPP emerged triumphant. Perhaps Zia foresaw this, reportingly confiding in an ally that his biggest regret was not having Benazir killed when he had the chance. She still faced her share of challenges, even the new President was reluctant to accept Bhutto as the nation’s first female Prime Minister, waiting far beyond conventional timing to congratulate her, and reading her oath in a haphazard way, hoping he could embarrass her in front of the world’s media when she had to repeat it.

However, she persevered and embarked on a dramatic period of change in Pakistan. From privatisation to international engagement, from globalisation, installing democratic institutions to taking on the influence of the military, the nation changed dramatically in the space of just a few years and Bhutto proved herself competent and worthy of the title of Prime Minister. In one famous case, Benazir was discussing military action against India with General Musharraf, who would years later go on to seize the Presidency. He insisted forceful action must be taken, but she kept challenging him, by asking ‘and then what?’ in response to his vague and poorly prepared suggestions, until he had no more answers and looked very foolish in front of the army chief. But, in 1990, her government was dismissed by the President under corruption, allegations, which she denied, only for her to return as Prime Minister in 1993 and continue her sweeping agenda with the mass enfranchisement of minority and women rights. Old habits die hard though, as her government was dismissed again, just 3 years later, and Bhutto went into self-exile in Dubai. Returning in 2007 to compete in the 2008 elections, momentum was with her decentralisation agenda. She never saw 2008, though, after she was shot dead in her car after a rally in Rawalpindi, in which the government of the day had denied her the security and protection she asked for, including visa’s for foreign protection officers. A cloud of mystery remains over her assassination, with many alleging security service complacencies. Pakistan’s political landscape has not recovered from such a void. For all her flaws, which she was certainly not free of, Benazir was symbolic of democracy and change. Even in death, she continued to unleash powerful democratic forces, when her party won a landslide in 2008.


But now, 32 years since Bhutto was first sworn in and 13 since she was killed, her legacy persists. The election of former cricketer and political outsider Imran Khan, and his centrist PTI, was encouraging, as it singled the dismantling of the 2-party system of the PPP and PML(N). Whilst they haven’t exactly sat on their hands, his government has not proven to be as transformational as promised. In theory, Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy, but in reality, power remains central and concentrated with the President and his Generals - the too free army to be political and interfere, which Khan has been somewhat complacent in by offering retired officials Government posts in return for the army’s covert support. This has huge negative implications, as extremism is often exploited and empowered by military force and dominance. Benazir argued that a Pakistan ‘’free from the yolk of military dictatorship would cease to be a petri dish of international terrorism’’ but instead flourish. Allegations of corruption, political suppression and censorship are also widespread, economic growth sluggish at best, the value of the Rupee is plummeting, and high-level figures, such as the chief editor of the largest media organisation, Geo, being detained.

Beyond the pragmatic and symbolic arguments of democratisation, Pakistan should relentlessly pursue the legacy of Benazir for self-interested reasons. All the evidence from the 2 terms of her rule show that as autocratic institutions are dismantled, economic growth ensues and poverty, which Pakistan continues to be plagued by, drops. Even the British Chancellor asked the former Prime Minister on her visit to the UK on how she was able to double tax revenue and use that money to repay Pakistan’s loans above the rate of interest. The strong correlation between democracy and foreign investment is undisputable, as is the fact that as Pakistan’s militarily became less political over her governance, Pakistan’s influence and respect amongst allies grew and its role in the international community became more significant.


In the last few months, 11 opposition parties, including the 2 largest, have united against the Government in a new movement called the Pakistan Democratic Movement, partly led by Benazir’s son Bilawal, echoing the Movement to Restore Democracy she led. This is possibly the most encouraging sign in decades for Pakistan’s willingness to redraw its civil-military relationship and proves that the Pakistani Iron Lady’s legacy is still powerful. The PDM bodes well for the next elections scheduled for 2023 and Senate elections in March, with the massive rallies being held across the nation a solid platform to continue to advocate the benefits and feasibility of democracy and decentralisation. Momentum is growing, with polls showing 51% of Pakistani’s wanting politics completely free of the military, vs 40%.


It is also in the global communities interest to see this happen: Pakistan can be the West’s eyes and ears when it comes to fighting extremism in neighbouring nations, and today is an important strategic ally to the 5 eyes intelligence sharing nations of Canada, US, UK, New Zealand and Australia – a role which can become more instrumental with time.


Whilst it’s unfair and naïve to compare the democracy of ancient countries like the UK to Pakistan’s, which is still in its infancy, if 32 years ago, an unassuming, young woman could set her embattled country on the road to democracy, then there is no reason why we should confine this notion to the history books of Pakistan today. I can proudly attest to the resources that lie within the nation of 200 million, but for all that, Pakistan will struggle to realise its full potential if it doesn’t change course, becoming melting pot for different interests, whether that be extremism perverting the name of Islam, the insurmountable power of the army or the influence of selfish foreign nations. For all its immense power, potential and pride Pakistan continues to fight to realise the legacy of its most promising leader – a legacy of democracy and decentralisation that is more important today than ever before in securing the bright future Pakistan truly deserves.

By Afraz Farooq

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