Benazir became the most prominent victim of terrorism 15 years ago today. The assassination left a deep wound.
Benazir’s loss is felt now more than ever as the country faces perhaps its most challenging and trying time in history. Once again, the long shadow of despotism hangs over the country.
Benazir inspired a nation wary of the long period of an authoritarian regime and gave voice and power to those who were dispossessed. Her fiercest political opponents praised her for her courage, defiance, and perhaps even her death.
The controversy surrounding the manner in which Benazir died exposed the gap between the Pakistani government and its citizens. Her assassination is still a mystery.
Benazir had many weaknesses, but her dedication to the cause was unquestionable. I was there to witness her epic struggle. I had the privilege of being with her during different stages of her struggle as a journalist.
During this period, I had many conversations, both on and off the record, with her. This gave me an insight into her political development. She was a fighter from the beginning.
She started her political career as Zulfikar Bhutto’s daughter, but she became a leader of her own. She was able to communicate with her critics and even the most ardent of them, which is a rare quality in political leaders. Her loss goes beyond that of a politician. She became a symbol of unity in a tense federation. Her death intensified political divisions.
Benazir was prime minister twice, but her tenures were both short. Her first term began after the PPP won the 1988 elections following the death in an aircraft crash of Gen Zia. The generals resisted the verdict of the people. The PPP did not receive power unconditionally.
Sixteen years after Benazir’s death, Pakistan is once again at a crossroads.
The powerful generals never accepted the idea of Bhutto’s Government. She accepted the challenge. In her first interview after becoming prime minister, she said: “I’m a fighter, and fighters never give up.” She was.
The generals waited until the right moment to strike. In August 1990, after only one and a quarter years in office, the PPP was ousted in what was called a constitutional coup.
Benazir has been implicated in several cases. The elections were rigged in every way possible. In this context, the 1990 results of the election were not a big surprise. Benazir, shocked by the results of the elections announced on TV, said: “Elections were stolen.” She was crying.
Benazir was at her darkest. She spent most of her time in court. The former prime minister was going through a very trying time as her party was demoralized. A move was made to disqualify the former prime minister and to force her to leave her country. All of this did not break her resolve.
Her triumphant return to power in the nation’s capital in November 1993 marked the end of a long period of struggle. She felt secure with a majority at the National Assembly and a President from her party. She had also grown up and learned from past mistakes. She wanted to leave behind the abuse and move on.
Her new government government was operating in a better environment. She knew the government system better. The challenges, however, were not any less. The second Benazir Government began to falter mid-term despite an extremely favorable political environment.
In September 1996, her brother Murtaza was shot dead by police outside his home. This sealed the fate of her fledgling GovernmentGovernment. The tragedy shook Benazir. She thought that the murder of her brother was part of a conspiracy to undermine her government.
The three-year second Benazir-Bhutto government was brought to a close. It was like deja vu when an elected Prime Minister was again sent packing. She was once again implicated in multiple cases and fled the country to avoid persecution.
Benazir returned to Pakistan finally on October 18, 2007. Two huge explosions hit her truck as she was proceeding. The street was a mess, and bodies were mutilated. This was the worst terrorist act in the history of the country. Benazir survived. But her assassins followed. A second assassination attempt on Benazir was successful in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on December 27, 2007. She was a victim of terrorism that she had vowed not to tolerate.
Pakistan finds itself at a crossroads today, as it marks the 16th Anniversary of her death. The nation is in ruins, and its existence is threatened by the growing divisions within itself and by rising extremism. The social and cultural divides are more apparent, and the economic disparity is increasing.
The major question is now whether or not the country will continue to follow a democratic course or if the forces of authoritarianism rule the nation. The country requires political reconciliation. The country needs a new charter of democracy, similar to the document signed in 2006 by Benazir and Nawaz Sharif, her arch-rivals and former prime ministers. To get the country out of the current crisis, a charter for the economy is needed. A new social contract that recognizes the democratic rights of nationalities will also be necessary to keep the nation united under the federal system.
The main question, however, is whether such a reconciliation is even possible in light of the growing political divide. Security establishments are now deeply embedded in the power structure of Pakistan, turning it into a quasimilitary regime. The threat to democracy is as great today as it was during Benazir’s lifetime.