A Year Later, Bhutto's Return To Power Looks More Tenable

But a relentless opposition campaign hampers her ability to govern

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AFTER standing outside Karachi's posh Avari Hotel for almost four hours in search of a customer, taxi driver Sardar Khan plans to leave for the day. ``These politicians are bad for business. They fight while we suffer,'' he says, pointing toward a newspaper headline that outlined the Pakistani opposition's plans to once again call a strike.

Like many others, he is tired of the repeated calls for antigovernment protests. For many Pakistanis, the continuing rift between the government and opposition is only a reminder of a deepening malaise in Pakistani politics, where the two sides continue to be locked in a never-ending dispute.

As Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto celebrates her first anniversary in office Oct. 19, she is confident her power is secure. ``I believe the people have given us a mandate to change their destiny. For that, I and my government must not be distracted by extraneous issues,'' she said while discussing her government's economic gains recently, referring to the opposition's ongoing agitation.

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Everchanging nature of politics

But in the tricky world of Pakistani politics, no one can be certain about the future. The country has seen 15 prime ministers come to office during the last 23 years of civilian rule. The previous years of Pakistan's 46-year history have been dominated by tough military rule.

Politicians who were persecuted during the most-recent military rule (1977-88), include Bhutto and her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former prime minister who was executed in 1979 on a politically motivated murder charge under orders from Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the last military dictator.

But times have changed. The powerful Army shows no signs of wanting to intervene, largely because of concerns that doing so would immediately spark a strong negative international reaction. Bhutto also draws support from the powerful president, Farooq Leghari, who served as one of her most-trusted lieutenants during her last term as premier.

The political picture, however, remains murky. Bhutto's ruling Pakistan People's Party neither has a majority of its own in parliament nor in the Punjab, Pakistan's largest province. As a result, she was forced last year to forge an alliance with renegade members of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif's party.

In addition, there are no signs that Mr. Sharif is willing to relent in his antigovernment campaign. In recent months, leaders of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League have accused the Bhutto administration of running an inefficient and corrupt government. They also demanded the resignations of the prime minister and president, which have been rejected.

Although the opposition does not pose an immediate threat to the government, Bhutto's ability to govern is hampered by the continuing partisan struggle. ``The government cannot take its eyes off these [political] troubles. With the opposition on a continuing warpath, the business of government suffers'' says one senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, assessing the past year.

Bhutto's political fortunes also rely heavily on the country's economic performance. Much depends on this year's cotton crop as about 60 percent of Pakistani exports come from cotton.

Export earnings have fallen behind target in the past two years due to large-scale cotton crop failures. Although the government predicts the country will achieve this year's crop target, that assurance has not assuaged the uneasiness among officials of another failure.

Despite that concern, the government says it is still complying with the target for financial performance, laid out in a three-year International Monetary Fund structural-adjustment program, which began shortly after Bhutto came to office.

As a result, Pakistan's dwindling official foreign-exchange reserves, which had fallen below $300 million last summer, have now risen to over $3 billion.

Investments and subsidized loans

The government is also proud of its recent ability to attract $12 billion in investments in the energy sector. New populist schemes, such as providing low-cost tractors to farmers on subsidized loans, have also been announced.

But such moves give few exact clues on the government's political future.

``Hers is a respectable record, but it's not a distinction,'' says Najam Sethi, a political commentator and editor of the influential weekly, Friday Times.

Bhutto's biggest challenge appears to be the need to negotiate a settlement with the opposition that would allow her to remain in office until the end of her five-year term. ``The government must share the blame for the politically unsettled situation,'' Mr. Sethi adds. So far, there are few signs that she is making much progress politically despite the economic gains.

For Bhutto's critics, her first year in office may have seen some recent successes, but the bigger challenge for her now is to transform those into political gains.

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