NO one could have foreseen a turning of the tables so soon. Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party who was dismissed as prime minister only a little more than two years ago, has emerged as the power broker in Pakistan's current political crisis.
Soon after President Ghulam Ishaq Khan moved to dissolve the country's lower house of parliament and dismiss the elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Ms. Bhutto announced her support for Mr. Khan against her longtime rival, Mr. Sharif.
The Bhutto camp might be elated at the turn events have taken, especially the appointment of her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, to an interim Cabinet set up by Khan to replace that of Sharif; until recently, Mr. Zardari was in jail on charges of kidnapping, fraud, and murder. Yet the implications of her decision to back the president are likely to trouble Bhutto for many years to come.
Khan, a former civil servant whose presidential powers Sharif was trying to curb, is not known for his love of democracy. Until recently there had been no love lost between him and Bhutto.
The powers that Khan exercised in order to dismiss Sharif were introduced during the military regime of late President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. Time and again, Bhutto has challenged the legality of these powers.
Bhutto's relationship with Khan has been hostile. The two have not met since August 1990, when Khan summarily dissolved parliament, dismissed Bhutto as prime minister, and held elections in which her party failed to gain a majority.
Thereafter, Bhutto did not attempt to hide her feelings toward the president. Pointedly refusing to attend Sharif's swearing-in ceremony in November 1990 because the president was playing host, a few months later she led a dramatic walkout of the opposition when Khan addressed a joint session of the two houses of parliament.
She has accused Khan of plotting against her government, against her, personally, even of subverting her attempt to be informed on such vital matters of state as Pakistan's nuclear policy.
Indeed, if there has been one man - other than the late General Zia, at whose instigation her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged - whom Ms. Bhutto has repeatedly, publicly, and bitterly attacked, it has been Khan.
After he dismissed Bhutto in August 1990, citing corruption and inefficiency among several causes for his action, charges were brought against her polo-playing husband, Zardari, who spent the better part of the next three years in jail.
Rumors abounded in recent months that Bhutto had cut a deal with the government in order to win her husband's release. Zardari was freed from jail and left Pakistan six weeks ago to join Bhutto in the United Kingdom where she had a third child.
Without Bhutto's support, it is highly unlikely that Khan could have moved as decisively and as swiftly as he did last week to unseat Sharif who, apart from being a native of the most populous province in Pakistan, the Punjab, is the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League, which is the largest component of the coalition of parties that made up the Islamic Democratic Alliance (IDA). Until last Monday, the IDA commanded a majority in the National Assembly.
Sharif, a wealthy industrialist and sharp-shooting entrepreneur in his own right, took office in November 1990, promising to guide a new Pakistan into the 21st century.
He introduced a dynamic privatization program, revitalized the economy, made it increasingly self-sufficient after a $3 billion aid package from the United States was cut, and in the process, managed to win the support of the country's powerful industrialists, businessmen, entrepreneurs, and professionals.
As a struggle for power between president and prime minister unfolds in Pakistan, it is clear that Sharif will not accept dismissal quietly. Soon after Khan's move, a defiant Shaif vowed to fight back and had begun to mobilize public opinion, especially of the business community, in his favor.
His dismissal has already brought a sharp response from the Punjab and the merchant city of Karachi, which went on a one-day strike to protest the action against him. The speaker of the National Assembly, Gohar Ayub, quickly sought a ruling from the judiciary against Khan's dismissal.
While the courts deliberate on the legalities of the situation, Khan has announced that elections will be held on July 14.
Bhutto, who had claimed that the November 1990 elections were rigged and had thereafter clamored desperately for fresh elections, quickly referred to the forthcoming elections as justification for her support of Khan.
Excuses, however, will not get Bhutto off the hook. If elections are held as scheduled, it is highly unlikely that Pakistanis will vote her back into power.
Things have changed a lot since those heady days of early democracy in Pakistan, when the Bhutto name evoked a gamut of emotions - from guilt to hope to admiration to fear - and when thousands flocked to hear her speak, to vote for her.
On Aug. 17, 1988, Zia ul-Haq was killed when his plane exploded over Bahawalpur, Pakistan. The country celebrated freedom and hoped for stability at the same time. The elections were held as scheduled in November 1988, and no one was surprised when Bhutto swept to power. Pakistanis were voting for freedom and for the Bhutto name.
A year later, the mood had changed, Bhutto's husband was dubbed Mr. Ten Percent and rumored to be on the take in a big way; her government was attacked as being corrupt and inefficient; law and order in the country, and especially in her home province of Sindh, were at an all-time low; and Bhutto, surrounded by yes men, acquired a reputation of being increasingly autocratic; of failing to address the real issues before her government.
Khan's dismissal of Bhutto in August 1990 was a sad blow for democracy in Pakistan. The powers Khan invoked are found in a highly questionable amendment to the constitution of 1985, which Zia had introduced to legalize his dictatorship.
But even more sad was the realization that Bhutto deserved to go. Whether it was due to political immaturity, to the influence of her husband, or other reasons, Bhutto squandered a unique opportunity to revive democracy. She failed to heal a nation bruised by 12 years of harsh military rule. Pakistan would not welcome her back as easily and as enthusiastically again.
Once Sharif took office, Bhutto settled down to a new role as leader of the opposition in Pakistan, gradually acquiring a semblance of stability and reliability as a politician.
Gone were the street politics of the late '80s. Gone were the shrill outcries against military dictatorship.
Bhutto put her head down, resisted the pressures put on her husband and herself, and gradually managed to shed many of the political shackles that she had acquired during the 20 months of her leadership.
Her actions last week shattered that record.
Her support for Khan implies support for a law that gives the president the power to make or break the chosen prime minister and government of the people of Pakistan.
If Pakistan is returned to democracy in the true sense of the word, it will not be thanks to Bhutto.