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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 Shahan MuftiCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 19, 2007



KARACHI, Pakistan; and NEW DELHI

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

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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.

"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.

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