Pakistan: Democracy or Bhuttoism? : Exile’s Return May Revive Cult

<i> Rone Tempest is The Times' correspondent in New Delhi. </i>

There are many here who would like to portray the dramatic return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan politics as a revival of democracy. Bhutto herself contends hers is a campaign “for the restoration of full democracy in the country” to replace the nine-year rule of Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

But critics say that what actually is happening here is a rebirth not of democracy but of Bhuttoism, of the kind of cult of personality that lent itself to repression and intimidation of any opposition.

In December, Zia lifted martial law in Pakistan, allowing the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to resume leadership of the previously outlawed Pakistan People’s Party founded by her father, who was executed seven years ago.

Certainly the huge, enthusiastic throngs that Benazir Bhutto has been able to rally since she arrived in Lahore on April 10 from self-imposed London exile attest to the political liberalization initiated by Zia.


Bhutto, 32, has been free to speak and travel throughout the sun-parched countryside. Her passionate crowds have been free to chant their favorite slogans, mainly those describing president Zia as a dog, son-of-a-dog or dog brother of former Philippines President Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Bitterly anti-American slogans, often employing the same canine motif, are also popular among Bhutto’s followers. A hot afternoon in the midst of a Bhutto rally is not a pleasant experience for an American. One is reminded of the passions that led to the burning of the American Embassy in Islamabad in 1979.

Some other Pakistani opposition leaders, also liberated by the Zia political reforms, have followings with even more volatile anti-Zia, anti-American feelings.

Such rallies demonstrate that some freedom of assembly and freedom of speech exist in Zia’s Pakistan, but it is difficult to say what the new political noise means for the country. It is difficult to “restore” or “revive” democracy in a country where it has never existed.


In its 39 tortured years of existence, Pakistan has never had a successful period of continuous democratic rule. It has experienced four periods of martial law, including a brief time in 1972 under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The country has had only one election considered open and fair by most participants. That election, in 1970, precipitated the secession of East Pakistan, which became the new nation of Bangladesh, and a war with India, which Pakistan lost.

The majority winners in the 1970 elections were the Awami League followers of East Pakistan leader Mujibur Rahman. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party won in West Pakistan, but Bhutto boycotted the National Assembly rather than relinquish leadership to Rahman.

It was only after the division of the country and a postwar period of martial law that Bhutto could claim to be the elected leader of what one writer facetiously described as “residual Pakistan.”

Bhutto himself called elections in 1977. Although his party won the election, opposition leaders charged that the vote was rigged. Massive anti-Bhutto street demonstrations were launched, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Bhutto was forced to declare martial law in several Pakistani cities. Ultimately he was removed in a bloodless military coup headed by Zia, who was Bhutto’s hand-picked choice as army chief.

Once again power had changed hands in Pakistan in a familiar way, first in the streets with mass demonstrations, and finally through the intervention of the military.

“This is the story of politics in Pakistan,” said a political science professor at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University. “No one relinquishes power in Pakistan except through street power. And the military is the only powerful, united ‘political party’ in the country.”

There are widespread concerns in Pakistan, particularly among the elite and in pro-American circles, that Benazir Bhutto is intent on reviving Bhuttoism. She has been quick to use the various slogans and manifestoes that marked the Bhutto rule.

Before he was executed here in 1979, Bhutto was one of the few men in South Asia who could have been described as a populist. What Huey Long was to Louisiana, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was to Pakistan.


Although he was the direct descendant of a feudal landlord family in Sind province, educated at Oxford and Berkeley, when he was elected to office Bhutto presented himself as a man of the masses. He promised all the people of Pakistan three essentials: food, clothing and housing.

He rallied people around a simplistic four-point program: “One, Islam is our faith. Two, democracy is our polity. Three, socialism is our economy. Four, all power to the people.”

When contradictions in his own habits, such as his fondness for alcohol in violation of Muslim principles, came to light, Bhutto was quick with a crowd-pleasing retort: “Sure I drink a little before I go to bed. But I do not drink the blood of the poor.”

In this way, the Bhutto movement took on the character of a cult. Indeed, the passionate displays in the crowds that gather around Benazir Bhutto, daughter of a man called a “holy martyr” by his followers, demonstrate that the cult is still alive.

“Bhuttoism is a very special philosophy which has sprung from the country’s soil--from its traditions, culture and political struggle,” said Benazir Bhutto in a recent interview. “People are prepared to give their lives.”

While the cult of Bhuttoism was able to gain an enormous mass following in Pakistan, it was also marked by repression and political intimidation equal to the rule of Zia, many opponents claim.

“The common man doesn’t know about Bhutto--70% of the people in Pakistan are illiterate,” Mahmood Zaman, a Lahore businessman, said. “But the informed man knows. Bhutto was a terror.”

Bhutto critics complain about the 10,000-man special Bhutto police organization, the Federal Security Force, that he used against political opponents and even wayward followers.


When Zia took over in 1977, he accused Bhutto of “running a Gestapo-style police state in which kidnapings and political murders had become a routine affair.”

It is in this political setting that the Reagan Administration finds itself supporting Pakistan’s incumbent dictator, Zia, in his program of gradual democratic reforms rather than endorsing the appeal for a full-fledged democracy and immediate elections made by Benazir Bhutto.

Painfully aware of past U.S. experiences with dictators in Iran, Nicaragua and the Philippines, U.S. officials here nevertheless say that Zia is different--different from the late Shah of Iran or ousted Haitian President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier or Marcos.

“Zia at his worst period was a benign military dictator,” one senior official said. “He has administered the country well, used minimum force. There were abuses, no doubt, but he corrected them.”