Zia's Death Puts Bhutto in Pakistani Spotlight

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 22, 1988

KARACHI, PAKISTAN, AUG. 21 -- Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto said today that her Pakistan People's Party is capable of winning an outright majority in National Assembly elections scheduled for Nov. 16, and she praised the Pakistani armed forces for responding with restraint to the death last week of military ruler Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

"The Army is seeking to extricate itself" from politics following Zia's 11-year reign as president and Army chief of staff, she said. "Had they wanted to impose military rule, they could have done it when Zia died."

Whether military restraint will continue, Bhutto said in an interview at her home here, "is the $64 million question. . . . Now it's up to the civilians also to cooperate and run a good government."

Assuming the November vote proceeds fairly and as scheduled, the next few months will be the time for which Bhutto, 35, has been waiting all of her political life. While she is considered the most popular politician in the country, with the ability to draw crowds of tens of thousands of supporters, she has never contested an election, and her vote-getting power remains unproved.

She has been the most prominent figure in the PPP, Pakistan's largest party, since 1979, when her father, party founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was executed by Zia. The senior Bhutto was prime minister when overthrown by Zia in 1977.

Benazir Bhutto's move to take over the reins of the party earned her several years in prison and in exile. She came back to Pakistan to stay in 1986, and it is only relatively recently that the Oxford- and Radcliffe-educated, highly westernized woman has come to be accepted by the PPP's senior power structure.

Today, she is firmly in charge, her supremacy apparently enhanced by her marriage late last year and current pregnancy. It is widely thought that her baby is due in November, but Bhutto has remained silent, reluctant to say whether she expects to become a mother before her potential election as prime minister.

"You know in Pakistan we have a different kind of culture," she laughed. "I know in the West, there is a keen interest in knowing and discussing about such matters. But then, one has to think of one's constituents, particularly at a time of elections."

Many of Bhutto's potential constituents in this Islamic country have their doubts about a woman politician, let alone a pregnant one. But the timing of the Bhutto baby is only one of the concerns facing Pakistan's political opposition.

So far, there have been two levels of opposition reaction to Zia's untimely death in a still unexplained plane crash. On one hand, there is barely concealed glee in anti-Zia quarters, particularly in the PPP, that the man whose dictatorial rule had kept them from fairly contesting power here for so long is finally gone.

In the days since Zia's death, the dozen or so opposition parties have gone into a flurry of meetings, internally and with each other, to lay out their strategies for the elections that interim President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the Senate chairman who succeeded Zia under terms of the constitution, has said will be held on schedule.

On the other hand, Zia's long shadow, and Pakistan's history of party squabbling and military intervention, still loom large over the political process. There is a highly tentative feeling to the abrupt change in circumstances, and a desire to avoid provoking the military until it is clear that civilian government will be firmly entrenched.

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© 1988 The Washington Post Company