Bhutto, an aristocrat who championed democracy

Minutes before her death, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto gazes towards a crowd of thousands of supporters at a campaign rally.
(John Moore / Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

She was, by her own account, a “daughter of destiny,” a pampered girl from an aristocratic Pakistani family who inherited her father’s political mantle and went on to become the Muslim world’s first female prime minister. But in the end, that destiny proved a tragic one: Like her father, Benazir Bhutto was killed for her political ambitions.

The assassin who cut short Bhutto’s life on Thursday brought to a close a remarkable biography encompassing a privileged childhood, degrees from Harvard and Oxford, stints in jail as a political prisoner, and mass adulation and contempt alike for her two terms as Pakistan’s prime minister. After eight years of self-imposed exile, Bhutto, 54, had returned to her native land in October to try for a third term.

Bhutto’s triumphal return was marred from the start by violence, when a suicide bomber struck her motorcade and killed more than 140 people in the southern port city of Karachi.

“I have many enemies -- I’m a security target,” Bhutto told The Times in June. “But this is a most critical time for the country.”

A defiant and strong-willed figure, instantly recognizable in her trademark white scarf, Bhutto never flagged in her belief that she was the best person to lead her nation to democracy and prosperity. That confidence led her to declare herself “chairperson for life” of her Pakistan People’s Party and to an imperious style that rewarded loyalists but alienated many others.

Her charisma and skillful political maneuvering were undeniable -- and sometimes masked the fact that her double stint as prime minister was at best a mixed bag, dragged down by allegations of massive corruption and criticism of her lavish lifestyle.

But Bhutto made an indelible mark not just on her home country but on the international political scene, both for her gender and her outspoken insistence on the need for Pakistan to remake itself into a secular, liberal state.

Despite her shortcomings, “what will remain is a commitment to democracy -- to moderate, centrist values, tolerance, a role for women and an accommodation with India,” Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, said Thursday. “She helped create a new identity for Pakistan as a place where women could be prime minister.”

Anil Kalhan, a visiting professor at Fordham University School of Law, agreed. “Certainly for women leaders she played an inspiring role, even though she ascended to that role in a dynastic way,” he said. “She was always a very charismatic person who had a tremendous following because of her father’s legacy as a populist but also in her own right. . . . She had people who adored her and detractors who couldn’t stand her.”

Her death leaves a huge void at the top of her party, one that will be difficult to fill in a region where personality cults reign. Bhutto’s three children, all in their teens, are too young to continue the dynasty begun by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as president and prime minister before being deposed and hanged by dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Benazir Bhutto was born on June 21, 1953, the eldest of four children in a well-to-do landowning family in the southern province of Sindh. In what remains a largely feudal society, Bhutto grew up in a mansion in Karachi with the trappings and perks of Pakistan’s postcolonial, English-speaking elite. She was attended to by an English governess, called by her nickname, “Pinkie,” and enrolled in elite Roman Catholic schools.

From a young age, she was witness to her father’s political career, which included Cabinet posts and stints as the head of Pakistan’s delegation to the United Nations. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto delighted his children with stories about famous historical figures such as Napoleon and Alexander the Great, as well as with gifts of chocolates and clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue, which bred a taste for luxury in his eldest daughter that persisted throughout adulthood.

So sheltered was Bhutto’s life that at 16, she was completely unprepared for life at Radcliffe College, Harvard University.

“I cried and cried and cried because I had never walked to classes in my life before,” she once told an interviewer. “I’d always been driven to school in a car and picked up in a car, and here I had to walk and walk and walk. It was cold, bitterly cold, and I hated it . . . but it forced me to grow up. There was this huge hall and you had to serve yourself and sit down somewhere next to someone, which meant I had to talk to people, and Americans are very talkative.”

From Harvard, she went on to Oxford University to study politics, philosophy and economics, an arena where she honed her skills by becoming the first Asian woman to be elected president of the prestigious Oxford Union debating society.

Her sights were still set on a possible career as a diplomat rather than a politician. But soon after her return, in 1977, her father was ousted as prime minister in a military coup and imprisoned, and martial law was declared. Two years later, he was executed, and his death became the defining moment in Bhutto’s life, launching her full-bore into politics.

“I told him on my oath in his death cell, I would carry on his work,” Bhutto later said.

She paid a price for her promise. Over the next five years, with the Pakistan People’s Party outlawed, Bhutto was in and out of detention, sometimes under house arrest, or in prison, under harrowing conditions. In her autobiography, “Daughter of Destiny,” she recounted her experience in solitary confinement in a desert cell in 1981, where the heat was almost unbearable.

“My skin split and peeled, coming off my hands in sheets. Boils erupted on my face. My hair, which had always been thick, began to come out by the handful. Insects crept into the cell like invading armies,” she wrote. “I tried pulling the sheet over my head at night to hide from their bites, pushing it back when it got too hot to breathe.”

She was allowed to leave Pakistan in 1984 for treatment of a serious ear infection. She settled in London, but the Shakespearean drama of her family’s life continued with the mysterious death of one of her two brothers, Shahnawaz, at his home on the French Riviera. Some accounts suggested that he had been poisoned, which Bhutto believed to be the handiwork of Pakistani agents. When Zia lifted martial law in Pakistan in December 1985, Bhutto felt the time had come to return. Her homecoming in April 1986, in the ancient city of Lahore, was tumultuous, celebrated by hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who thronged the streets and forced her motorcade to slow to such a crawl that it took 10 hours to travel eight miles.

In her elegant British-inflected accent, she called on Zia to resign, saying that it was “a bad year for dictators” -- a reference to the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti. The momentum of her rapturous welcome propelled her on a national tour and then her party to victory in elections in November 1988, months after Zia’s death in a mysterious plane crash.

Governance, however, proved difficult for Bhutto in both her terms as prime minister, from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996. She was credited with immediately ending media restrictions and speaking out for women’s rights, but she was constrained by the military and the mullahs, Pakistan’s two most powerful groups.

Although Bhutto’s domestic rhetoric echoed the populism of her father, with its promises of basic necessities for all, inflation continued to hurt the poor and foreign debts grew. And though the West saw her as a glamorous symbol of moderation, she was unable to curb Islamic and ethnic militancy.

Most damaging of all were the accusations of corruption that began to surface. Bhutto made little secret of her love of the finer things, and she and her husband, businessman Asif Ali Zardari, lived lives beyond the imaginings of most Pakistanis, with residences in London and New York. The money to finance such opulence was suspected to have come from kickbacks and other shady deals by Zardari, who was nicknamed “Mr. 10%.” Despite his unpopularity, Bhutto gave him a Cabinet post during her second term.

The corruption allegations drove her from office and eventually the country. Her husband spent eight years in prison, though without a formal conviction. Investigations were opened in Britain, Spain and Switzerland.

Four years ago, a Swiss investigative magistrate convicted Bhutto and Zardari of money laundering. The judge ruled that Swiss firms had bribed the couple in return for a Pakistani government contract. But an appeals court set aside the verdict and the investigation was open at the time of her death.

Last month, Spanish prosecutors closed their three-year investigation of Bhutto and Zardari, citing a lack of evidence. The British case, a civil lawsuit by the Pakistani government involving the purchase of Bhutto’s multi-million dollar estate in England, is still pending.

Bhutto’s reputation was further damaged by the fatal shooting of her other brother, Murtaza, by police in 1996 in Karachi. Some believe Bhutto, who was prime minister then, herself engineered, or at least tacitly approved the killing, because he challenged her status as party leader. Different factions within the family remain politically at odds with each other; last month, Murtaza’s daughter Fatima Bhutto lashed out at her aunt in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece, saying that her return could mean the death of the democratic movement in Pakistan.

In self-exile, from her bases in London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Bhutto continued to hold sway over her party, contesting the corruption charges and traveling the world promoting her vision of a democratic Pakistan.

“She really believed that. There’s no question that her upbringing and her background and her experience in the West was part of her identity. That was what she stood for,” said Cohen of the Brookings Institution.

Exile seemed to have mellowed her. “I found her to be thoughtful and reflective and more willing to admit errors than she did before. I think she matured as a politician in exile,” he said. “She was 100% politician. She worked at her job very, very hard.”

Before her return to Pakistan in October, Bhutto was working on a controversial power-sharing deal, backed by the U.S., with President Pervez Musharraf. Her willingness to deal with an army general who came to power in a coup and whom many of her compatriots consider a ruthless dictator compromised her standing to some extent.

But reading the public mood, as well as Musharraf’s apparent reluctance to bend on key points, she announced last month that she would no longer negotiate with him.

Instead, she took to campaigning for her Pakistan People’s Party in the elections scheduled for Jan. 8, hoping to recapture some of the magic and popular acclaim that had greeted her on her first homecoming in 1986.

At that time, she had invoked her father’s spirit in words that would prove prescient more than 20 years later.

“He told me at our last meeting at Rawalpindi jail that I must sacrifice everything for my country,” she said. “This is a mission I shall live or die for.”

Apart from her husband and their three children, son Bilawal and daughters Bakhtawar and Asifa, Bhutto is survived by her mother, Nusrat, and sister, Sanam.

Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella in London contributed to this report.