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Bhutto Returns: Through the Domestic Lens

Commentary, 19 October 2007
Terrorism, Central and South Asia
In the early hours of 19 October 2007 in the port city of Karachi blasts intended to assassinate the returning leader of the Pakistan’s Peoples Party, Benazir Bhutto, killed 130 people.

In the early hours of 19 October 2007, in the port city of Karachi, blasts, intended to assassinate the returning leader of the Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP) and two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, killed approximately 130 pro-PPP supporters and injured over 250.

Bhutto’s return after eight years of self-imposed exile was permitted by President Musharaff. The fact that 20,000 security personnel were deployed to protect her convoy is further proof of the tacit approval by the President. Newspapers in the Indian subcontinent as well as those in the UK and the US have been full of insights on who might have been behind the attacks. But few have begun to analyze what this recent event might mean for the future of Pakistan and the power-sharing arrangements between Bhutto and the President.

It has been suggested that the attack on Bhutto will provide Musharraf with an opportunity to impose emergency rule and dissolve the National Assembly, something that his supporters have favoured since Musharraf was forced by popular pressure to reinstate Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in August this year.

This however, seems unlikely. In the next three months, it is highly probable that the General will try and work out some form of a democracy plan with Bhutto, a façade perhaps, but nevertheless still an alternative to declaring a state of emergency and ruling by decree. Four considerations back up this prediction:

  1. Since the beginning of 2007, Musharraf’s popularity has plummeted. Street support has been reduced to those favourable to his allies in the MQM, in Karachi, and, to a limited extent the PML (Q) coalition in Islamabad. His support for the US’s War on Terror and recent attacks on the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in the capital has brought him sharply against Islamic radical groups who are more than willing to use suicide bombers to undermine the President's authority. Within the army, once his strongest support base, Musharraf has also lost a degree of support amongst his commanders. Their reluctance to attack the Lal Masjid and murmers about Musharraf’s non-Punjabi ethnicity has caught the eye of the army, sixty to seventy per cent of whose officer cadre hail from the Punjab. Lastly, the PML (Q), setup to support Musharraf at the centre is in disarray. Many of whose leaders have lost faith in the General or their political future. All these factors make it unlikely for Musharaff to be able to support declaring emergency whilst enjoying enough political support to stay in power.
  2. There is little doubt that the Americans have been working hard to convince the General to work out a democracy plan for Pakistan that involves the PPP, the largest opposition party in Pakistan. The frequent visits made by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher cannot be dismissed as regular trips paid to America’s closest ally in South Asia. The Americans realize that the only way the General can be kept in power is to ally with the PPP. The PPP realize that the only way they can come to power is with the support of the General. This power sharing game has inherent advantages for both sides. It is worth noting that only Musharraf can alter a constitutional clause inserted on his behest in 2003 that disallows re-election for the PM’s seat for the third time. Bhutto has been PM twice already.
  3. The fact that Musharraf met with Bhutto in Abu Dhabi in September 2007 signals his keen desire to ally with those who he once had the luxury to do without, but no longer can afford to isolate. As far as the army is concerned, he has managed to make sure that a pro-US Lt. General, Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, the former ISI chief, and a die hard Musharraf loyalist will take over if the President removes his uniform. In the next three months, and notwithstanding a political assassination in Pakistan, it is plausible that the General and the PPP will ally at the centre; he will agree to remove his uniform once the Supreme Court clears his recent electoral victory; and Kiyani, a Punjabi, will be placed as the pro-Musharaff army chief, agreeing to disallow a coup supported by the commanders. 
  4. The bombing may bring an element of stability to a testy relationship between Bhutto and Musharraf. Both already speak the same language of a war between moderates and extremists. The difference now is that Bhutto may be convinced that the greatest threat to Pakistan is not the military. A danger existed that the alliance between the two political figures would be short-lived. Bhutto’s popularity and return to Karachi posed a real danger to Musharraf, not least in her ability to usurp Musharraf’s role as the moderate middle protecting Pakistan from extremism. The difference after the attack is that she may now see the moderate middle in broader terms. The bombing may therefore cement the cracks in the alliance between the two figures.

Rudra Chauduri is a Research Associate for the Asia Programme at RUSI.



The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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