Pakistan Democracy Reeling After Bhutto's Second Ouster

Months of mounting pressures on Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto finally caught up with her when she was summarily dismissed by the president Nov. 5.

In his order, President Farooq Leghari - once her trusted lieutenant and ally - announced the dismissal of her government and the dissolution of the 217-seat National Assembly. Ms. Bhutto was replaced by an interim administration headed by Malik Meiraj Khalid, a veteran Pakistani politician with an unblemished record for honesty. Fresh national elections were announced for Feb. 3.

The president's actions, which were permitted under the Constitution, marked the second time Bhutto has been dismissed from the prime minister's job. In his order Mr. Leghari charged her with "corruption, nepotism, and violation of rules in the administration of the affairs of the Government...."

The setback to Bhutto's government, widely seen as a blow to Pakistan's fragile democracy, came from the unexpected quarters of the president and seems to have the blessings of the Army. Her official residence was surrounded by soldiers with assault rifles who guarded the gates to her home. Bhutto is the country's eighth prime minister to leave office in as many years. Her departure is certain to be followed by skepticism in the minds of the average Pakistani about the country's ability to steer a smooth course in its parliamentary democracy.

Many analysts here say that Bhutto's downfall eventually came because it was difficult for Leghari to keep supporting her. She nominated him as her ruling Pakistan People's Party's (PPP) candidate for president in November 1993 hoping he would not use his powers against her government. However, "sustaining this government was eventually embarrassing for the president," says one senior Western diplomat. "He had to act because the accusations against the government were too many."

Bhutto's fall followed growing charges of corruption against the government and an assortment of scandals. Asif Ali Zardari, the prime minister's husband, who was appointed as the minister of investments in September, was repeatedly accused by the opposition for taking large kickbacks on government contracts. He, along with 20 other members of the PPP, was arrested when Bhutto was sacked.

Bhutto's downfall also followed growing political turmoil in her home province of Sindh, one of Pakistan's four provinces. Some of her party's closest supporters became tough critics after the Sept. 20 killing of her estranged brother, Murtaza, by the police in Karachi. The killing was followed by antigovernment demonstrations in rural areas of Sindh, the home ground of the Bhutto family. The fallout from the killing became worse for Bhutto when her brother's widow accused Mr. Zardari of ordering the killing.

Senior Pakistani officials on Nov. 5 said that they expect Zardari to be interrogated in the Murtaza case, but it is not clear if he would be formally charged. "The allegations against Zardari will be thoroughly examined, and he'll be questioned on the charges of Murtaza's murder and accusations of corruption," said one senior official.

Bhutto's own future is also unclear. She was previously sacked in 1990, and her current downfall, three years into her five-year term, has come at a time when her government has become increasingly unpopular. In addition to the turmoil in Sindh, she has faced growing criticism in other parts of Pakistan due to tough economic conditions.

Pakistan has faced price increase on essential goods this year after a devaluation of the rupee by more than 15 percent since January. The Bhutto government was forced to devalue the rupee as a step to increase Pakistan's exports, which have remained static for several months.

The devaluation is the latest of a series of criticisms against the former government's handling of the economy. Bhutto refused to appoint an independent finance minister until last month and kept the finance portfolio under her own office since becoming prime minister in 1993. During that time, Pakistan's economy has performed below expectations, which added further to the antigovernment criticism.

Many in the new government say that Mr. Khalid, the new premier, will immediately set about trying to establish an image of clean government.

"The new government will give a healthy start to Pakistan because it's determined to remain untainted. Many people will feel encouraged by that start," says Abida Hussein, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, who was among those sworn into the new Cabinet Nov. 5.

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