The Road Ahead for Benazir Bhutto

With aid from US, she can build on progress made

CHOSEN to be Pakistan's prime minister following the country's first free elections in 11 years, Benazir Bhutto has faced over a year of triumphs as well as challenges. First, Ms. Bhutto should be given high marks for playing a significant role in bringing about democracy in Pakistan. Immediately after assuming office, she released all political prisoners, abolished capital punishment, and lifted the ban on student and trade unions. Today, the political air in Pakistan is freer and there are no preventive detentions. Ministers are challenged, heckled in public and attacked in print. The opposition has regular access to the state-run radio and television.

Despite the acute shortage of public funds which accompanied her takeover of the government, Prime Minister Bhutto has launched a massive nationwide health and social welfare program. The government has increased the expenditure on education by 70 percent; launched a vocational training program for unemployed youths; provided electricity to 2,600 villages, and sought to implement a comprehensive policies on health and on raising the socioeconomic status of women.

In economics, the Bhutto government reduced the budget deficit from 8.5 to 6 percent of Gross Domestic Product and took inflation down from 12 to 9 percent in a year. Foreign investment quadrupled. The economy has expanded 6 percent in the agricultural sector and may top 7 percent growth in large-scale manufacturing.

Pakistan is a poor country with a per capita income of $390 a year and a GNP of $21 billion. Its literacy rate is only 26 percent, and with one of the highest rates of population increase its population has reached 110 million today.

Besides grinding poverty, Bhutto inherited other problems from the previous regime. Corruption was endemic under Zia. The Afghan war resulted in the influx of 3 million Afghans fleeing to Pakistan. During military rule, the drug trade flourished leading to the heroin and Kalashnikov culture and ethnic violence in the large cities, particularly Karachi.

A major problem for Bhutto has been the political battle with the main opposition group, the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), the 11-party opposition alliance which is divided on every issue except opposition to Bhutto. While Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party emerged with the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, her party lacks an absolute majority in the federal legislature and must depend on the support of other small parties. IJI controls the upper house and the Senate.

The Senate is dominated by the IJI whose leader, Nawaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, has vowed to prevent Bhutto from governing the Punjab - the most important and populous state in the country. IJI also opposes women in government, saying that Islam teaches that women aren't capable. The most serious challenge to Bhutto's rule came in November 1989 when a no-confidence vote called by the opposition was defeated in the National Assembly. The power equation could change if Bhutto's party wins the elections for the Senate to be held in 1991.

Bhutto raised the expectations for reform in the country. Many poor Pakistanis expected a new world after she became prime minister. But with limited resources, the Bhutto government has been unable to deliver on all its promises.

In the aftermath of the November Parliamentary challenge, the prime minister has tried to rectify past mistakes. Apologists say she is learning and point to recent moves to cooperate with the opposition. Bhutto has also maintained good relations with the military and the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aslam Beg.

Bhutto's overall record shows progress. Democracy is alive and well in Pakistan, though in its infancy. In a country rebounding from a repressive regime it takes time for institutions to take shape.

Bhutto stated in Washington last year that support less than the large amounts given during the 11-year-long authoritarian rule of General Zia will send the message that democracy does not pay. Given that the US is being asked to spend a few billion dollars on new democracies in East and Central America, cuts in foreign aid to Pakistan in the future could adversely affect Pakistan's experiment with democracy.

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