For more than a week, political workers have been coursing through the countryside chanting “Chalo Lahore --"Go to Lahore"--as excitement mounted over the return today of Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the late prime minister and populist leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
After more than eight years of imprisonment and exile, Benazir Bhutto is expected to resume the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party, the country’s main opposition party.
Arriving early this morning on a flight from London, she was met by large crowds of supporters at the Lahore airport. She told reporters that she had returned to test the political climate under President Zia ul-Haq.
“I have come here to test the claim of democracy,” she told reporters. “I think there is no democracy. The people will give the verdict through free and fair elections under a party system,” she said before her motorcade headed for a gathering in the city.
A massive parade and rally were planned. A park next to the red sandstone fort in the Walled City, described by Rudyard Kipling in “Kim,” had been readied for the hundreds of thousands of people expected to gather there.
The rally was expected to be the most significant demonstration yet of the democratic tradition restored after martial law was lifted in December by President Zia. For most of the martial-law period, political demonstrations were not permitted at all.
“Benazir had not been allowed to speak here since 1977,” a Bhutto supporter, Salmaan Taseer, told a reporter. Taseer is a spokesman for the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, an organization made up of 11 parties.
Imposed House Arrest
Last August, Benazir Bhutto was permitted to return to Pakistan to bury her brother Shahnawaz, on condition that she not participate in politics. She was arrested Aug. 29 for making political speeches and sentenced to 90 days of house arrest. After the United States protested, she was released Nov. 4, and she returned to Europe later that month.
As the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whom Zia deposed in 1977 and then had executed in 1979, Benazir, 33, has become the symbol of Pakistan’s lost democracy. And the party whose leadership she inherits is still the largest and most political in the country.
“For all these years,” Taseer said, “the Zia government has tried to vilify the Pakistan People’s Party and Ms. Bhutto. This peaceful meeting will show that the epicenter of democratic politics is still with her.”
Dr. Mubashir Hasan, a former finance minister in whose home the Pakistan People’s Party was founded in 1967, said: “Pakistan awaits a messiah. The people here cannot find anyone better than the daughter of Bhutto. Pakistan awaits her to give deliverance. Nothing else can explain the euphoria and air of great expectation.”
By Wednesday night, the excitement and expectation had reached fever pitch, with caravans of cars and trucks festooned with party flags and crammed with chanting supporters moving along the main streets. When traffic stalled, men jumped from the vehicles to link arms and dance. The route between the airport and the rally site was lined with large murals depicting Benazir Bhutto and her late father.
Several banners carried her father’s quotations: “I shall rule this country from my grave.” The People’s Party strategy appears to be to stress the family connection, supporting arguments that Benazir Bhutto’s popularity is still mostly based on her father’s memory.
In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that little credit is given to President Zia for ending martial law, or to Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo for encouraging political freedom.
Over the last 14 months, Zia has gradually loosened his political grip on the country. A National Assembly was elected on a nonpartisan basis. Civilian leader Junejo was installed as prime minister, and he has taken over many executive functions from Zia, who continues to serve as president and chief of staff of the armed forces.
Finally, on Dec. 27, Zia announced the long-promised removal of martial law, which had been in effect since 1977, when Zia took over after a military coup. Under the guidance of Prime Minister Junejo, additional democratic rights have been restored until most political parties, even those banned under martial law, have begun meeting regularly.
The transformation has won a certain amount of outside praise for Zia, particularly from the United States, which has been a staunch supporter of Zia because of Pakistan’s ties with the West and Zia’s anti-Soviet position regarding Afghanistan. But Washington has often been embarrassed by his dictatorial rule.
Zia Steps Back
“Zia has done something extraordinary,” a senior Western diplomat commented in Islamabad, the capital. “He has voluntarily given up the running of a government. He ran it for eight years and he is not running it today. It took us a long time to figure it out. At first we could not believe it.”
Some Western observers in Lahore, center of a relatively prosperous farming and manufacturing area of 4 million people, have sought to discount the significance of the Bhutto rallies and political meetings.
“The masses are seething in apathy,” one said, with irony. “I think Benazir is a long shot.”
Still, most observers expected today’s rally to be one of the largest ever in this country. And many fear that it could lead to a violent confrontation, as rallies have here in the past.
“The question,” one diplomat said, “is whether (Benazir Bhutto) is going to be a responsible stateswoman who will make her contribution to . . . democracy in Pakistan, or whether she deliberately or inadvertently is going to behave in such a way as to get crowd activity--street power--and once again discredit the institution.”
Seek to Avert Violence
Violence at the rally, or at any subsequent gatherings, would be an obvious excuse for the reimposition of martial law. Zia has said he will not hesitate to take such action if political conditions deteriorate. To avoid this, 2,000 Bhutto party workers have been organized into “people’s guards” to monitor the crowd.
Preparing for her political journey back to Pakistan, Bhutto flew to Washington to reassure members of Congress and State Department officials about her plans.
“She told them what they wanted to hear,” said a diplomat who had been briefed on the Washington visit.
But American officials are known to be concerned about comments she made on her return to London, where she has been living in exile. There she compared herself with Corazon Aquino and the “people’s power” movement that ousted President Ferdinand E. Marcos in the Philippines.
U.S. officials and their Western allies are not willing to equate Zia with Marcos. “General Zia at the worst period was a benign military dictator,” one diplomat said. . . . "(Zia) is not corrupt. He lives modestly. He is a religious man.”
U.S. officials are extremely appreciative of the strong position that Zia has taken on Afghanistan. Despite pressures from nearly 3 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, Zia has steadily supported a hard line against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, his northern neighbor.
When Bhutto speaks later today, Americans will be listening carefully to anything she says about Afghanistan. Most opposition parties have supported direct talks between Pakistan and Afghanistan rather than the indirect talks that have taken place from time to time. Bhutto has not expressed on opinion on this issue.
A strong statement in favor of direct talks, Western diplomats here fear, would give the Soviets the impression that gains can be made by a political change in Pakistan.