ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — BENAZIR BHUTTO, who became prominent as the first woman to lead an Islamic state five years ago, has made her long-awaited political comeback.
After her party won a slim margin in national elections Oct. 6, she was appointed prime minister again Oct. 19. Ms. Bhutto ruled the country from 1988 to 1990, but her government was sacked on corruption charges that were never substantiated. Her Pakistan People's Party has led the opposition ever since.
Bhutto has built a coalition government with the support of minor parties in the National Assembly, including all of the country's religious parties. And she is confident of forming a similar coalition in the parliament of Punjab - Pakistan's largest and wealthiest province, which is crucial to her political survival.
The National Assembly named Bhutto prime minister by a margin of 121 to 72, with only the Pakistan Muslim League of her archrival Nawaz Sharif and one other small party opposing her.
Bhutto's path to success began earlier this year when Mr. Sharif was forced to resign as prime minister in July at the end of a prolonged power struggle with then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. The power struggle ended in their joint resignations and new elections were called.
A commitment by the Army's most powerful generals to allow free and fair elections also worked in Bhutto's favor. In addition, the government of interim Prime Minister Moeen Qureshi remained strictly neutral.
``Having been in the opposition, she has learned from her struggle,'' says Zia Ispahani, a Karachi businessman and another senior Bhutto aide. Mr. Ispahani would not go into details on how Bhutto's government would differ from any other.
Under her previous government (from 1988 to 1990), her mother, Nusrat Bhutto, was a senior Cabinet minister and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, kept a high profile in government circles. Mr. Zardari later spent more than two years in prison after Bhutto's downfall on various charges such as taking kickbacks while she was in office. Those charges have never been proved.
In the run-up to this month's elections, however, Bhutto and Zardari kept a distance and seldom made any joint public appearances. According to some of Bhutto's aides, none of her family members are expected to join the new Cabinet. In addition, she has also made up with some of the senior-most former bureaucrats who previously opposed her.
Bhutto is heiress to Pakistan's best known political dynasty. Her earlier term in office marked a return to democracy after a decade of military rule and was greeted with enormous popular support. Her father, popular Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown by the military in 1977 and hanged two years later.
Despite her political recovery, Bhutto still faces the formidable challenge of keeping the government running. Her political foes are likely to watch her every move carefully, to find new grounds for criticism, and attempt to break up her alliance. The government will have to live within tough economic boundaries set by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for loans of up to $1 billion that Islamabad wants. Recent economic reforms have pushed up prices of ordinary goods and sparked concern of rising inflation.
During the final days of the campaign, Bhutto said repeatedly that her top priorities would be to take Pakistan out of its ``international isolation'' and to ``improve the state of the economy.'' Many officials expect the new government to start exploring ways of improving ties with the United States, which remain lukewarm after the US cut off military and economic assistance in 1990, following allegations that Pakistan was producing nuclear weapons.