Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
As the initial shock of the terrorist attacks against Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto fade, it is becoming clear that they were a political boon for her, triggering a wave of public sympathy that extends well beyond her local Sindh stronghold.
Yet despite this, Bhutto is finding it hard to convert this changed public mood into increased political support. Bhutto, the head of the Pakistan People's Party, needs all the support she can find after returning from exile. Her decision to form an alliance of convenience with Pakistan's unpopular military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, continues to undermine her claim to be a restorer of democracy and champion of the street. The deal has lent greater public legitimacy to Musharraf, who will share some of the power he has monopolized. Yet there is little love and even less common policy between the two.
In theory, the suicide attacks against Bhutto should have brought them closer together. After all, Islamic militants have repeatedly tried to assassinate Musharraf. Instead, Bhutto accused members of Musharraf's own party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) [PML-Q], and his government of playing a role in the attack.
"It remains a point that neither Federal Minister Ijazul Haq nor PML-Q president Chaudhry Shujaat were ever attacked by suicide bombers," she said.
Shujaat, only half-jokingly, returned the favor by calling her a terrorist. Musharraf denounced her statements.
Bhutto and Musharraf implicitly agree that Pakistan's other democratic leader, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, should be kept in exile in Saudi Arabia until after the general election in January. But skewing the election in this manner hurts Bhutto more than Musharraf, reinforcing the sentiment that she is a stooge of the military, and that Sharif is the real democratic leader. This reinforces her need to maintain distance from Musharraf.
Almost everyone agrees that theirs is less a political alliance than a shotgun wedding. Much of the shotgun's ammunition comes from the US, which perceives keeping the military in power as being necessary for the short-term battle against the new Taliban groups.
However, the US also believes that rolling back popular support for Islamic fundamentalism in the long term requires a legitimate democratic government. Islamic parties have tended to benefit electorally when the democratic parties are politically hobbled.
The US hopes to get the best of both worlds. But it runs the risk of getting the worst of each: a civilian leader without legitimacy coupled with a military leader too weak to fight the Islamic militants who virtually rule the tribal areas near Afghanistan. Likewise, Bhutto's ability to play the Musharraf card and still maintain public support is fragile. A poll by the International Republican Institute in August showed that 47 percent of Pakistani voters supported a Bhutto-Musharraf alliance, with 37 percent opposed. Notably, nearly a third of Bhutto's own party opposed such a deal.
Musharraf's recent farcical reelection as president probably cost Bhutto support. The terrorist attacks and her response -- attacking Musharraf's party, visiting the wounded in hospital, and offering to pay for their medical care -- have probably earned some of it back. The question now is: Can she keep it?