A Piece of Political Theatre


It is all so depressingly predictable.

A predictably corrupt political bargain brokered under American patronage between a military dictator struggling to retain power and a discredited politician desperate to regain it. The predictably triumphant return of the exiled leader, to be greeted by throngs of cheering supporters. Her predictable tears of joy and kissing of the Qur’an as she stepped onto the soil of the land which she and her associates had so comprehensively looted during her last tenure in office.

And the predictable climax: explosions blasting the celebrating masses, leaving death and mutilation in their wake.

Twenty thousand security personnel, bomb-jamming devices, and the blocking of mobile phone signals did not prevent this tragedy. Nor did the fact that the authorities could not have been more explicitly warned: two weeks ago, the Taliban-affiliated tribal warlord Baitullah Mehsud announced that he was sending suicide bombers to kill her and he was by no means the only threat.

But for Bhutto, demonstrating that she still wields her famous street power was a more important consideration than the safety of her supporters. The massive crowd that gathered to meet her (estimates range from a Government figure of 150,000 to her own party’s claim of 3 million) was in large part manufactured by her Pakistan People’s Party. The party bussed in supporters from all over the country. Supplies of paint and fabric in the party colours ran out days ago.

The necessary spectacle was achieved: the billboards adorned with Benazir’s visage, the flags, the joyful supporters dancing in the street, and Bhutto herself a baseball cap inscribed with party slogans jammed over her headscarf as she mouthed emotional platitudes and promises of a bright tomorrow.

But whoever sent the bombers got their spectacle as well: Bhutto’s specially modified party vehicle with its billboards and bullet-proof screens lit by the flames of burning cars and the lights of emergency vehicles. Bloodied victims screaming in agony, parents calling in vain for their children, bodies littering the street, Bhutto herself hastily shuttled away to safety, having narrowly missed the blast.

Pakistani theories about the bombings have been a lot more complicated than John Howard’s confident assertion that they ‘bear the hallmarks of al-Qaeda.’

Bhutto’s husband, Asif Zardari, has blamed the intelligence agencies for the attacks, while before her return, Bhutto herself claimed that the main risk to her safety came from ‘retired military officers.’ The long history of entanglement between the military and militant Islamists and the fact that the bombers were able to penetrate such a massive security cordon will fuel Pakistani’s considerable talent for conspiracy theories.

But even with the event’s bloody finale, Bhutto’s return has probably strengthened her political position, at least for the moment. The deal that was struck to allow her return was greeted with widespread cynicism. This is Bhutto’s second triumphant return from exile, the second time she has promised Pakistanis a fresh dawn after years of military rule. But her previous terms in office were marked by massive corruption and a failure to implement any meaningful social reform.

During her first term in office, her husband was known as ‘Mr 10 per cent’, for the kickbacks he was said to demand. By her second term, this had risen to ‘Mr 30 per cent.’

Bhutto’s election to the Prime Ministership was hailed as a victory for women’s rights, but she failed to overturn the Hudood Ordinances under which thousands of Pakistani women, including rape victims, have been jailed for adultery. Nor did she reform the laws that allow murderers to be pardoned if the victim’s family agrees to accept blood money a loophole that allowed families to murder errant wives and daughters with impunity.

Bhutto has spent the years of President Pervez Musharraf’s rule in exile, under the threat of corruption charges. But Musharraf’s hold on power has been weakened recently by his failed attempt to sack the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who had showed worrying signs of judicial independence. As Musharraf’s thin veneer of political legitimacy became more and more fragile, the United States made it clear that it wanted him to reach a political accommodation with Bhutto.

The negotiations stretched over weeks, the main sticking point being ‘the uniform issue’ Musharraf’s determination to retain the twin offices of President and Chief of the armed forces. Bhutto was under strong pressure from inside and outside her own party not to sell her co-operation too cheaply.

But in the end she settled for a self-serving deal that saw her party support Musharraf in this month’s parliamentary vote on the presidency, in return for an amnesty on the corruption charges. This allowed her to return home in true feudal magnificence, rather than being ignominiously bundled onto the nearest available return flight the fate that recently befell another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Bhutto is still not entirely in the clear over the corruption charges. The Supreme Court is yet to rule on the validity of the amnesty, and some members of the ruling party have claimed that she has walked into a ‘trap.’ However, the massive crowd that heralded her arrival has immeasurably strengthened her standing.

On the other hand, continued political violence could give Musharraf the excuse he needs to impose emergency rule, and cancel January’s scheduled elections.

Submit this article to the Independent News Aggregation Site - Kwoff.com.au

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.