A complex woman of many contradictions

(Globe photo)
Email|Print| Text size + By Pamela Constable
Washington Post / December 28, 2007

WASHINGTON - With her luminous eyes and strong features framed by a flowing white head scarf, Benazir Bhutto was the face of Pakistan's democratic hopes, a face that had been thrust into the limelight with the execution of her father in 1979 and that remained there until her assassination by a suicide bomber in Pakistan yesterday.

Bhutto, 54, was a charismatic but controversial political leader whose highly magnified life was marked by dizzying twists of fate - family tragedies, political triumphs and defeats, accusations of corruption and autocracy - that often led to comparisons with the Kennedy clan in the United States and the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty of India.

Following in the footsteps of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, she was twice chosen as Pakistan's prime minister in the 1990s but was also twice driven from office amid charges of corruption and incompetence. This winter, after years of self-imposed exile, Bhutto was attempting to stage a high-risk political comeback that could have led to a third term as premier in elections next month.

Instead, Bhutto's slaying, which occurred at the site where Pakistan's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was gunned down in 1951, seemed destined to plunge her fragile homeland into political free fall, vulnerable both to the predations of increasingly violent Islamic extremist forces and to the resulting temptations of military control.

Benazir Bhutto was a woman of many contradictions. Her complex personality and tumultuous career reflected the deep social schisms and paralyzing political power struggles of the vast, impoverished country she briefly governed and long represented as a flawed but passionate advocate for change.

She was born June 21, 1953, into a life of feudal privilege and wealth in a highly stratified society, then sent to boarding schools and on European vacations in sports cars while millions of her illiterate countrymen toiled in brick kilns and wheat fields for pennies a day. Yet she went on to became a champion of popular democracy who headed her country's closest equivalent to a secular Western movement, the Pakistan People's Party.

She was a graduate of Radcliffe College and Oxford University who spoke cultured English and moved easily through the drawing rooms of Georgetown and London. Yet she also submitted to a traditional arranged marriage and, while speaking up for the rights of women in Muslim societies, was always careful to publicly observe the stylistic dictates of her religion.

Bhutto broke with family tradition by not covering her face with a veil in public. Instead, her white head scarf, known as a dupatta, became her political trademark - a symbolic bridge between tradition and modernity.

She was a highly disciplined and skilled politician who kept an iron grip on her party, remaining its lifelong president and making all its decisions, even during her long exile in London and Dubai. Despite her cult status as a democratic leader, she explored military power-sharing and attempted rapprochement with Afghanistan's Islamic Taliban rulers when it seemed expedient.

Above all, she was her father's daughter, inspired by his stories of Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and raised with foreign democratic leaders at the dinner table. Then in 1977, a military coup plucked her from carefree college life. Her father was thrown into prison, tried on dubious charges of corruption and murder conspiracy, and finally hanged in 1979 on orders from Pakistan's dictator, General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

In an autobiography, "Daughter of Destiny," Bhutto described in revealing detail her youthful visits to her father in prison, especially her memories of his dignity and determination under squalid, humiliating conditions and in the face of death.

Later Bhutto faced her own ordeal of house arrest, prison, and exile, but she emerged toughened and determined to carry on her father's legacy as a secular reformer.

"There was a kind of fatalism about Benazir," said Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani American scholar in Washington who knew her well. "She saw herself as being on a mission, to carry forward the message of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and she was determined to carry that mission out, come what may. People accused her of being an opportunistic politician, but she was also very religious. She was resigned to doing what she had to do." The high point of Bhutto's career came in 1988, when she returned to Pakistan after a decade of military rule, welcomed by tumultuous mobs as the leader who could deliver the country from the darkness of the Zia years.

Yet even though she was an inspiration to Pakistan's poor voters, Bhutto proved a disappointing ruler. She traveled widely abroad and was extremely popular in Washington, and she enacted economic policies aimed at attracting foreign investment and reducing Pakistan's appalling poverty.

But she failed to control a series of domestic conflicts, especially a spiral of ethnic and sectarian violence in Karachi, her native city. She was accused of trying to manipulate the courts and the press and of stooping to multiple acts of petty self-enrichment while in power. She was forced from office after two years, then reelected in 1993 and forced out a second time after three more years.

Many of the corruption charges involved her husband, businessman Asif Ali Zardari, who was snidely referred to as "Mr. 10 Percent." The pair were accused of taking kickbacks for government contracts.

In 1999, husband and wife were sentenced to five years in prison; Zardari spent eight years behind bars, but Bhutto, who was abroad at the time, did not return.

Bhutto consistently denied the charges and claimed they were politically motivated.

Bhutto spent much of the last decade living abroad with her three children, largely to avoid prosecution. But early this year, she began quietly negotiating to return to her troubled homeland. Bhutto had been warned by friends and advisers not to return to Pakistan. Islamic terrorism was on the rise there, and the country's increasingly emboldened Islamic militants viewed her as a dangerously secular figure who was essentially the Western candidate for prime minister.

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