On This Day

Benazir Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto voting, Benazir Bhutto election
Zahid Hussein/AP
Benazir Bhutto casts her vote in the
general elections, Nov. 16, 1988.

On This Day: Benazir Bhutto Elected Prime Minister of Pakistan

November 16, 2010 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 16, 1988, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party was the winner of Pakistan’s national elections, clearing the way for Bhutto to become the first female leader of a Muslim-majority nation.

Bhutto’s Political Ascent

Benazir Bhutto was born into a wealthy Pakistani political dynasty. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founded the leftist Pakistan People’s Party and served as prime minister from 1973 to 1977, when he was ousted in a military coup led by Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. He was hanged two years later for allegedly conspiring to murder a political opponent.

Following her father’s death, Benazir Bhutto was frequently imprisoned or put under house arrest by President Zia over the next six years. She fled to London in 1984, and assumed control of the Pakistan People’s Party while living in self-imposed exile.

She returned to Pakistan in April 1986 to challenge Zia’s authority, and was welcomed by hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters. In August 1988, Zia was killed in a mysterious plane crash, allowing for Pakistan to hold its the first free elections since Zia seized power.

Bhutto, who gave birth to her first child in late September, mobilized the PPP for the election. “Ms Bhutto's response, as the Zia men regrouped to fight for survival, was to match them at their own game with another ruthless bout of realism,” wrote The Guardian. “Party stalwarts were dropped, and recent converts rewarded with nominations. Landlords, industrialists, religious leaders, and anyone with vote-winning potential, was welcomed on board.”

On Nov. 16, 1988, the PPP won the largest bloc of seats in the National Assembly, easily defeating the conservative Islamic Democratic Alliance. Though the party did not win a majority of seats, it appeared that it would be able to form a coalition government and install Bhutto as prime minister.

“For Bhutto, the election was a battle among ghosts,” wrote Time. “She was driven by a fierce longing to avenge her father's death. … In achieving victory by playing up her father's name and his strong populist appeal, she in effect vindicated his chaotic 5 1/2-year rule. Moreover, by besting the eight-party Alliance, which included many supporters of Zia's policies, she wreaked posthumous vengeance on the man who had her father put to death.”

After several weeks of negotiations, the PPP formed a majority government with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and several other parties. Bhutto was chosen as prime minister and sworn in on Dec. 2, becoming the first female head of state of an Islamic nation.

Bhutto’s Unsuccessful Terms in Office

Bhutto assumed office with high expectations, but she was unable to accomplish anything significant during her reign. She began to lose popular support, and the MQM dropped out of the coalition in October 1989.

“Benazir's rhetoric soared, promising much to an expectant nation: strengthened relations with the United States, the Soviet Union, and China; protected minority rights; increased provincial autonomy; improvement of education; introduction of a comprehensive national health policy; enhanced rights for women, with equal pay for equal work; and the like. When faced with the hard realities of government, however, most of Benazir's rhetoric did not translate into action,” according to the Library of Congress’ Country Studies.

Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari also faced charges of corruption. By August 1990, her rule had become untenable, and the president dissolved her government.

She was again elected prime minister in 1993. She served until 1996, when she was again dismissed by the president over corruption allegations. Although Bhutto steadfastly denied the charges, she went into exile for the next 11 years to avoid prosecution.

Return From Exile and Assassination

In 2007, after President Pervez Musharraf dropped the charges against her, she returned to Pakistan to run in the 2008 elections. Upon her arrival in October, she was nearly killed in a bombing likely set off by al-Qaida militants.

But on Dec. 27, 2007, at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi, a gunman shot at her and set off a suicide bomb. Bhutto was killed, either by a bullet or piece of shrapnel to the head or by hitting her head against the sunroof of her car. Her death was mourned over the world, but her legacy in Pakistan is mixed.

“As a Muslim woman leader, Bhutto was almost an iconic figure in the West,” wrote Time. “But her actual career in office was one of great populist spectacles and little governmental achievement. … In the final analysis, her career was an almost tawdry cycle of exile, house arrest, ascent into power and dismissal, much sound and fury and signifying little.”

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