Emily MacFarquhar
Emily MacFarquhar

Fellowship Title:

Benazir Bhutto: Comeback Kid?

Emily MacFarquhar
December 5, 1998

Fellowship Year

Note: The pictures for this story are copyrighted and not available for web publication.

Benazir Bhutto, world-class political pugilist, is refusing to go down for the count. For over a year now, this twice-elected, twice-deposed ex-prime minister of Pakistan, has seemed to be on the ropes. Her next term looked more likely to be served in prison than in parliament. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is already a longtime resident of Karachi Central Jail and Benazir herself was served with an arrest warrant by the Sindh High Court on charges of abuse of power. Magistrates in Britain and Switzerland are formally investigating claims of corruption and drug-dealing against the Bhutto family. The United States, France and Spain also have been asked to help trace overseas stashes of ill-gotten gains. And yet to see Benazir Bhutto taunt the government in the National Assembly, rouse a rally of tens of thousands in her rival’s home base and cajole former enemies into an anti-government alliance, is to watch an indefatigably resilient politician at work. Bhutto started on her comeback offensive, spurred on by two things: the growing unpopularity, ineffectiveness and internal discord of the government that replaced her; and the bogging down of the so-called accountability process aimed at indicting her and her husband for massive corruption. She was recently blocked in a first effort to turn the table against her pursuers by initiating cases to disqualify them from politics for failing to disclose hidden assets. This same charge, levied against Benazir, would be the simplest way for the government to remove her from the field of battle. The fact that this has not been done and that none of the major corruption charges against her and her husband has yet resulted in a court trial in Pakistan has raised serious doubts about whether the government actually intends to carry its anti-corruption crusade to its logical conclusion.

MacFarquhar01.jpgBenazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, and her spouse Asif Zardari, left, arrive in Rawadlpindi, Pakistan on July 28th to face charges of corruption and looting of public money during their tenure. Bhutto claims the charges are part of a campaign by her political enemy, the current Premier, Nawaz Sharif.

The reason many Pakistanis are skeptical that Benazir Bhutto will ever be convicted of corruption is that this would set a dangerous precedent in a country where no senior figure has ever been made to pay a price for looting the public till. In 1996 Transparency International, a non-governmental watchdog group in Berlin, named Pakistan as the second most corrupt country in the world. It has since slipped to number five but few people would argue that the level of Pakistani corruption has significantly diminished. When Benazir was in power, her government estimated that its predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, had stolen some $1.2 billion. Back in office, the Nawaz team claims that the Bhutto-Zardari family got away with $1.5 billion to $2 billion. How much of this is provable is besides the point. Both sides have closets-full of damning evidence against the other and, once one set is used to lethal effect, the chances are greatly enhanced that the wheels of justice will one day reverse direction. It may be that those wheels have already gone too far to be stopped. On April 2, the Bow Street magistrates court in London began cross-examining witnesses to establish whether bank accounts and properties belonging to the Bhutto family in Britain were financed by profits from drug-dealing. Britain is cooperating with Pakistan in these investigations under the Vienna convention which guarantees mutual assistance among signatories in cases related to drug trafficking. According to Pakistan’s lawyers in Britain, Asif Ali Zardari had business dealings with at least 10 known drug lords, including four who were extradited to the United States and interviewed in American jails. An anti-narcotics court in Pakistan brought formal charges against Zardari. If he is found to have knowingly profited from narcotics offences, he would be subject to imprisonment of 5 to 14 years. Benazir Bhutto is not directly implicated in the drug charges. But in drug enforcement as in other many areas, she chose a fox to guard the chicken coop: the man she appointed as chairman of parliament’s All-Party Committee on Narcotics was arrested a year later carrying 35 kilos of heroin and 30 kilos of hashish in his car.

MacFarquhar02.jpgBenazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan and leader of its opposition, held a news conference last spring in Islamabad, Pakistan to describe the current prime minister’s performance as “zero.” She accused the government of failing to provide security to people while bomb explosions are routine in the country.

Bhutto’s name does not appear on any of the bank accounts or property deeds in Britain or the numerous bank accounts in Switzerland or more than a dozen dummy companies set up in the British Virgin Islands that have been traced to her husband and her mother. The only document connecting Benazir to any of these overseas assets is a handwritten ledger taken from the family money-manager in Geneva, with the notation that 50% of one account belonged to AAZ (Zardari) and 50% to BB (Benazir). So even if the British court upholds the charges it is investigating and even if the Swiss magistrate, now examining sources of funds in Swiss accounts, concludes that they include the proceeds of corruption, Benazir Bhutto herself could not be held accountable for earning or hiding illicit profits.

The accounts in Switzerland, known to contain at least $13 million and perhaps much more, have been frozen since last autumn. The British accounts will be frozen only if Pakistan can provide some additional information demanded by the Home Office. But since the threat has been hanging in the air for months, it would be surprising if any of the accounts already identified contains more than sixpence. The most notorious of the real estate holdings linked to Bhutto and husband – a $4 million mansion in Surrey, surrounded by 355 acres with helipad and stabling for dozens of polo ponies – is rumored to have been resold.

MacFarquhar03.jpgBenazir Bhutto spoke to the press last August in Islamabad after lodging a complain of corruption and tax evasion against Pakistanti Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Bhutto has asked for an early trial in the case.

The Bhutto-Zardari family is also reported to have accounts in at least four banks in France, seven in the United States, two properties in Texas, six in Florida and several homes in France but legal processes to freeze or confiscate them have yet to begin. The Americans are treating the search for laundered loot and drug links as a political timebomb, classified as top secret. The French are also skittish about launching investigations which may end up confirming reports that tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks were paid by French state enterprises on sales of submarines and aircraft to Pakistan.

For Benazir Bhutto, the international asset hunt is about much more than money. It is about the political future of the Bhutto dynasty and the Pakistan People’s party (PPP), founded by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 30 years ago. And it could also be about her 10-year marriage to Asif Ali Zardari. When Bhutto was thrown out of office for the second time in November 1996, massive corruption ranked high among the charges against her. Three months later Pakistani voters handed her and her party a devastating election defeat. Her public humiliation was compounded in September last year when reports surfaced of multi-millions of dollars salted away in foreign accounts. Pakistani commentators were nearly unanimous in writing her off. Today they are not so sure. In just a few weeks, she has re-emerged as Benazir Reclux, still a pyrotechnic orator, master political manipulator and the biggest crowd-puller in Pakistan. Even among the chattering classes, the charisma is still there. When the Harvard- and Oxford-educated beauty waltzed through Lahore a few weeks ago, invitations to lunches, dinners and late night chats with her were the hottest tickets in town.

Bhutto’s resurgence is due to her talents, her fighting spirit but also to the barrenness of Pakistan’s political landscape which leaves her the only viable alternative to a successor who is not delivering the goods. But she still carries heavy baggage in the shape of a husband who is widely blamed for turning her second administration into a profit center for the benefit of the first couple and a circle of cronies. The loyalest of the loyal insist that Benazir was duped by the machinations of an avaricious (and womanizing) mate. More skeptical supporters admit that Benazir must have known what her husband was up to and probably collaborated with him. They see only one way she can hope to regain power: by dumping Asif Ali Zardari.

For Zardari, who is now in jail on two murder charges, this calculation may be his strongest protection. The last thing Benazir’s enemies want to do is to assist her political rehabilitation by eliminating her biggest liability. For 44-year-old Benazir, love and three young children are strong bonds tying her to her dashing rogue of a husband. But for a member of Pakistan’s pre-eminent political dynasty, there may be another love that conquers all: the love of power.

©1998 Emily MacFarquhar

Emily MacFarquhar, a freelance writer in Cambridge, MA., is researching the life of Benazir Bhutto.

Emily MacFarquhar
Emily MacFarquhar