Thu, Oct 18, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Anticipation builds in lead-up to Bhutto's return

AFP , KARACHI, PAKISTAN

His children wear headbands with Benazir Bhutto's picture, but Abdul Raziq has not come to pay any ordinary tribute to the former Pakistani prime minister -- he has doused them and himself in petrol.

"I love Benazir and I will burn us all if the government does not back down," the wild-eyed 40-year-old laborer says after authorities in Karachi ordered pro-Bhutto billboards in the city to be torn down.

His sons Rajaba Ali and Ali Raza, aged four and six, weep as they are drenched in the flammable liquid while daughters Rakhshanda, 7, and Iqra, 10, look bewildered as a crowd cheers outside the Karachi press club.

Eventually senior members from Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) who had been holding a press conference inside the building intervene, taking a cigarette lighter from Raziq, and the family are led off.

Even if there is a whiff of stage management to go with the petrol fumes, the scene nevertheless raises questions about the personality cult that surrounds Bhutto, her late father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and their party.

This port city of 12 million people, Pakistan's economic hub, has been decked with countless posters of Bhutto ahead of her planned homecoming today from eight years in exile.

Almost every single lamp post on the 10km road from the airport to the city center has an array of PPP flags. Party supporters danced wildly in the traffic on Tuesday night as they celebrated.

In another part of Karachi, a parched-looking Mohammad Ashraf Raza, 35, pedals a bicycle adorned with Bhutto posters in the party's signature red, green and black.

He says he has just arrived in Karachi after spending a week cycling from his hometown in Vehari, 700km to the north in the heartland of Punjab Province.

"I have travelled for the last week but I am not tired because I love Benazir Bhutto," he said, dressed in traditional baggy pants, long shirt and a prayer cap.

The cult around the Bhuttos began when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged by then military dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1979.

At least one supporter burned himself to death at the time and there have been similar incidents reported in the intervening years, including one in 2004 over corruption cases brought against the former prime minister.

The charges were dropped as part of an amnesty deal by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that paved the way for her return home.

The party has also profited by selling itself as an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised -- despite the Bhutto family's own history as major landowners.

The party itself does not deny that there is a cult-like element to its support base.

"In the subcontinent, politics is like that," senior PPP member and senator Safdar Abbasi said at Bhutto's residence in Karachi, as workmen spruced up the building for her homecoming.

"It is easy to criticize this cult, but I think that Madam Bhutto, after her father's death, has earned this stature with her party. Everybody in the party believes she is our main vote-getter," Abbasi said.

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