From the archives: an interview with Benazir Bhutto

In 1988, the Monitor interviewed the woman who would become the Muslim world's first head of government

From the May 31, 1988 edition.

Benazir Bhutto has set her sights on becoming prime minister of Pakistan. After Sunday's shake-up in Islamabad, she may be able to take a step in that direction sooner than she expected.

Ms. Bhutto is the leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the main opposition party in Pakistan.

Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq has suggested that, for the first time since he seized power in 1977, opposition parties will be allowed to participate in the parliamentary elections to be held within 90 days. Elections were not scheduled to be held until 1990.

(In Karachi, Pakistan, Bhutto said her party would participate in the elections if they appeared to be ''free and fair,'' the Washington Post reported Monday.)

For Bhutto, who was educated at Harvard and Oxford, the road to the top will be difficult. But foreign diplomats and specialists say she could eventually assume power, perhaps as the first female prime minister in a Muslim country.

Despite her current prominence, Bhutto was initially a reluctant politician.

In an interview with the Monitor in Washington before Sunday's events, she said, ''The last thing I wanted to do was to go into politics ... and given the choice I never would have.''

However, just after she received her master's degree from Oxford in 1977, Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown as president in a military coup led by General Zia. After her father was executed in 1979, Bhutto was further than ever from the career in diplomacy or political journalism that she would have preferred.

''Gradually, gradually, I was sucked into a position where there was a sense of responsibility and a sense of duty. ... I remember the famous late-night conversations as an undergraduate (at Radcliffe) over endless cups of coffee and pretzels. It would be over how much an individual determines their own future and how much you are a product of your own special circumstances. I found out myself.''

Bhutto has become much more than the daughter of her father. Six years of prison, house arrest, and exile helped forge her into a formidable political leader. During her visit to Washington, she fielded delicate questions with aplomb. United States experts were impressed with her poise and approach to the issues.

When Bhutto returned to Pakistan from exile in 1986, she apparently hoped a wave of ''people power'' could help sweep her to victory as had happened to Corazon Aquino in the Philippines earlier that year. But the regime was not as feeble or unpopular as that of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos. Bhutto survived and adapted.

''First you tend to move in a groove. ... Suddenly you say, 'Wait a minute, things have changed around us.' If you don't respond to those changes you can be out completely. ... When I returned in 1986 I thought, 'We need to respond to the changes within Pakistan.' That's when we got down to the business of defining the party.''

Bhutto has set about taking a new look at the key issues facing Pakistan and reshuffling her party leadership, all the while pushing for a full restoration of democracy. A key part of this process has been to begin to build bridges to the domestic forces that opposed her father and to reassure Pakistan's key foreign allies, such as the US, about her intentions should she come to power.

She now takes a moderate line toward the US, which irks many in her party who still say Washington encouraged the coup against her father. She credits US demands for a restoration of democracy, inserted into the 1981 US military aid package, with encouraging Zia to call parliamentary elections in 1985 - the first since the 1977 coup.

Part of Bhutto's mission in Washington was to advocate continued US support for a full return to democracy in her country. She says she worries that the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan may tempt the US to turn its attention away from Pakistan.

Bhutto is taking a fresh approach to such vital issues as Pakistan's nuclear program and relations with India. It was her father's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability to match India's that soured US-Pakistan relations in the late 1970s.

But neither the change of regime nor large US military aid package stopped the advancement of Pakistan's clandestine nuclear program, US officials say. Nuclear arms will become an even greater sore point in US-Pakistan relations once the Soviets are out of Afghanistan, most US experts assert.

''If the doubts on this question are not cleared up,'' Bhutto says, ''Pakistan faces the danger of aggravating the situation on the subcontinent and losing the support of the US. ... The PPP does not want to see Pakistan approach the 21st century isolated internationally (nor does it want) to aggravate India to a point of conflict, to preemptive moves against Pakistan.''

Pakistan, she says, ''can expel doubts'' by making clear that it is pursuing just an energy program, while not appearing to concede ground to a nuclear-capable India.

Before Bhutto can test her approach, she has to win power. Many observers say Zia and the military establishment may not let her party win parliamentary elections.

Bhutto has also to confirm her popular appeal and her hold on the PPP. It won only 20 percent of local posts last November, in the first nationwide elections in which it has participated since the 1970s. She argues that the tables were tilted against the PPP. But Pakistani observers say internal party turmoil and defections hurt, too.

While acknowledging an improved political climate in Pakistan, Bhutto says the regime still amounts to a ''dictatorship,'' in which PPP supporters are attacked and harassed. The key, she says, remains to ''de-link'' the leadership of the army from control of the government.

Finally, Bhutto has to overcome the disadvantages of being a woman in an Islamic society. But, she says, in South Asia, unlike many parts of the Muslim world, cultural and historical factors allow women of high socio-economic background to ''transcend the gender gap.'' Indira Gandhi ruled in India, Sri Lanka had a female president, and the leader of the opposition in Bangladesh is a woman.

Bhutto knows that she must tread softly in championing reform or taking on religious fundamentalists, however. She bows to tradition, such as in accepting an arranged marriage last December, while continuing to challenge it by having a husband who is pleased to have her career come first.

She admits that, ''Because I'm a woman it's not so easy for people to approach me.'' Bhutto carefully tries to be properly reverential to older male politicians, but says one key to her success has been popular affection.

''While women don't generally have rights, they are looked upon with great respect and a sense of protection ... so when there is a sense of tragedy (as with her father's execution) there is a sense of 'Let us be the protectors.' ... Because the people of the country have accepted me, my strength really comes from that. ... The others recognize this fact and deal with me because of it.''

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