Can Benazir Bhutto save Pakistan's President Musharraf?

After eight years in exile, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's return was greeted with twin bomb blasts late Thursday.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After eight years in self-imposed exile, Benazir Bhutto is back.

For the thousands of singing and dancing supporters who flocked to this raucous Karachi street to greet her, the corruption charges against Ms. Bhutto or her willingness to ally herself with an unpopular president don't seem to matter.

The only thing about the former Pakistani prime minister that concerns folks such as Qaim Khatoon: Bhutto is back on Pakistan soil.

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"Our living and dying is with Benazir," says Ms. Khatoon, who spent two nights traveling here by bus.

Hours later, the celebratory atmosphere in Karachi was shattered when two bomb blasts killed at least 45 bystanders and wounded about 100 more, according to Reuters.

In recent weeks, Bhutto has alienated many Pakistanis by her dealings with President Pervez Musharraf, which were seen as driven by Washington's desire to bolster a moderate South Asian government in its fight against Islamic extremism. They have also, at least for the moment, cleared her of charges that she stole millions from Pakistan in the 1990s.

But Thursday's triumphant return is a reminder that much of Pakistani politics is personality and pageantry. And charisma alone might be enough for Bhutto. It is a calculus born of experience, banking on her ability to turn decades-old allegiances to her family name and home state into votes. But heading into the campaign season for January parliamentary elections, the strategy carries new risks, experts say: Pakistan is changing, becoming more politically sophisticated as a raft of news channels plays an increasingly important role in shaping public opinion.

"If we get free and fair elections, the results might surprise a lot of people," says Sahfqat Mahmood, a columnist for The News, a daily newspaper. "The media has given a degree of political education to the people."

Only 28 percent of Pakistanis said Bhutto was the best leader for the country – a drop of four points from the previous survey, according to a survey by the International Republican Institute, an American polling firm.

By contrast, 36 percent of those surveyed chose former premier Nawaz Sharif, whose numbers jumped 15 points largely as a result of him positioning himself as the anti-Musharraf candidate.

Musharraf's precipitous decline in popularity is partly due to his close ties to Washington, which supports Musharraf as a crucial ally in the war against terrorism. The Bush administration has also come out in support of Musharraf's alliance with Bhutto as a hedge against the rising influence of Islamic extremism.

Her arrival Thursday was Bhutto's attempt to change the momentum against her, and the event showcased her greatest strengths: her celebrity and the organizational capabilities of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Buses lined Karachi streets for miles, and festive street scenes made the decaying port city seem more like Rio than the Arabian Sea coast, with boomboxes blaring music from every region of Pakistan, and one motorcycle broadcasting old Bhutto speeches from its makeshift speakers.

Among the throng, there was no doubting anyone's allegiance. Ahmed Khan's 5-year-old son stood beside him with a Bhutto sticker on his shirt, pledging his support to a woman who left the country three years before he was born. Then Mr. Khan clarifies: They are not here for Bhutto, really. They are here for her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a political martyr hanged by one of Pakistan's military rulers 28 years ago.

"This is all his earnings that she is enjoying," says the white-bearded man, who saved weeks worth of money from his rickshaw business to come here.

The sentiment is widespread in the crowd, and it points to the feudal nature of politics here. As the daughter of Zulfikar, Benazir has inherited the devotion that he won from many of Pakistan's poor. And as a daughter of the state of Sindh, she can expect to sweep the rural parts of the state in elections. These are the two constituencies that experts expect her to woo in the coming months.

There is a logic to the strategy of playing on her father's name and her Sindhi heritage. If she succeeds, the electoral math suggests she may be able to cobble together enough votes to be the leading partner in a coalition government – winning her the prime minister's seat.

Court weighing Bhutto's future

But uncertainties remain. First is the Supreme Court, which still must rule on whether Musharraf was a legal candidate for the presidential elections he won more than a week ago. A decision is expected soon. If he is declared invalid retroactively, Pakistan's political establishment would be thrown into chaos, and any deals Bhutto struck with Musharraf would be useless.

The Supreme Court could also have a say in this matter, too. It will look into whether the amnesty deal Bhutto made with Musharraf is illegal. If it rules against Bhutto, the decision would make her vulnerable to cases charging that she and her husband embezzled money from the government and put it in Swiss bank accounts. In one case, a Swiss judge said Thursday he had finished his investigation into the money-laundering charges and would present his findings to a prosecutor next week.

Yet even if Bhutto survives these challenges, her political maneuverings have antagonized those who created the conditions for her return: the middle class. The anti-Musharraf movement that has roiled Pakistan in recent months is largely a secular, liberal, middle-class phenomenon – a group which, in the past, often went along with Bhutto as the Western-educated, left-of-center candidate.

But it has turned against her since she began to deal with Musharraf. The president is seen by many here as a US-backed puppet, making Bhutto's arrangement with him appear to be a cynical political gambit to secure her own political future.

The middle class "felt empowered by the [anti-Musharraf] movement," says Hassan Abbas, a former member of the Bhutto and Musharraf administrations and now a political scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "That movement could not have faced any bigger jolt than what Bhutto did" in striking a deal with Musharraf.

A working-class appeal

The middle classes were notably absent from the crowds that came to Karachi Thursday, who were overwhelmingly from the working class. Few experts expect Bhutto to attempt to reconcile with wealthier voters.

"She's not going to be bothered by them," says columnist Mr. Mahmood. "She's going to try to shore up her grass-roots base."

But he and others suggest that could be a mistake. While the middle class's electoral strength remains miniscule, it controls the news media and the IRI poll released last week suggests that media coverage of Bhutto's dealings with Musharraf have had an impact on her popularity, say some experts.

"We will only know after the election which calculus is right or wrong," says Mr. Abbas.

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