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A Life Reflecting Her Country's Contradictions

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 28, 2007

With her luminous eyes and strong features framed by a flowing white head scarf, Benazir Bhutto was the face of Pakistan's democratic hopes -- a face that had been thrust into the limelight with the execution of her father in 1979 and that remained there, aging gracefully, until her assassination in Pakistan on Thursday.

Bhutto, 54, was a charismatic but controversial political leader whose highly magnified life was marked by vertiginous twists of fate -- family tragedies, political triumphs and defeats, accusations of corruption and autocracy -- that often led to comparisons with the Kennedy clan in the United States and the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty of India.

Following in the footsteps of her father, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, she was twice chosen as Pakistan's prime minister in the late 1980s and the 1990s, but was also twice driven from office amid charges of corruption and incompetence. This winter, after years of self-imposed exile, Bhutto was attempting to stage a high-risk political comeback that could have led to a third term as premier in elections next month.

Instead, Bhutto's slaying, which occurred at the site where Pakistan's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was gunned down in 1951, seemed destined to plunge her fragile homeland into political free fall, vulnerable both to the predations of increasingly violent Islamic extremist forces and to the resulting temptations of military control.

Benazir Bhutto was a woman of many contradictions. Her complex personality and tumultuous career reflected the deep social schisms and paralyzing political power struggles of the vast, impoverished country she briefly governed and long represented as a flawed but passionate advocate for change.

She was born June 21, 1953, into a life of feudal privilege and wealth in a highly stratified society, then sent to boarding schools and on European vacations in sports cars while millions of her illiterate countrymen toiled in brick kilns and wheat fields for pennies a day. Yet she went on to become a champion of popular democracy who headed her country's closest equivalent to a secular Western movement, the Pakistan People's Party.

Bhutto, nicknamed "Pinkie" for her rosy complexion, was a graduate of Radcliffe College and Oxford University who spoke cultured English and moved easily through the drawing rooms of London and Georgetown. Yet she also submitted to a traditional arranged marriage and, while speaking up for the rights of women in Muslim societies, was always careful to publicly observe the stylistic dictates of her religion.

Bhutto broke with family tradition by not covering her face with a veil in public. Instead, her white head scarf, known as a dupatta, became her political trademark -- a symbolic bridge between tradition and modernity. She was often shown in photographs adjusting the scarf modestly over her hair as she delivered ringing, impassioned speeches on foreign policy or economic reform.

She was a highly disciplined and wily politician who kept a grip on her party, remaining its lifelong president and making all its decisions, even during her long exile in London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Despite her cult status as a democratic leader, she flirted opportunistically with military power-sharing and attempted rapprochement with Afghanistan's Islamic Taliban rulers when it seemed expedient.

Above all, she was her father's daughter, inspired by his stories of Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and raised with foreign democratic leaders at the dinner table. Then in 1977, a military coup plucked Pinkie from carefree college life. Her father was thrown into prison, tried on dubious charges of corruption and murder conspiracy and finally hanged in 1979 on orders from Pakistan's dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

In an autobiography, "Daughter of Destiny," Bhutto described in revealing detail her youthful visits to her father in prison, especially her memories of his dignity and determination under squalid, humiliating conditions and in the face of death. His own autobiography, written from prison, was titled "If I Am Assassinated."

Later, Bhutto faced her own ordeal of house arrest, prison and exile, but she emerged toughened and determined to carry on her father's legacy as a secular reformer. It was a goal she pursued, with deviations into unsavory political intrigue and the temptations of personal power, for the rest of her life.

"There was a kind of fatalism about Benazir. She saw herself as being on a mission, to carry forward the message of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and she was determined to carry that mission out, come what may," said Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistani American scholar in Washington who knew her well. "People accused her of being an opportunistic politician, but she was also very religious. She was resigned to doing what she had to do, and it must have taken a great deal of inner strength."

The high point of Bhutto's career came after her return to Pakistan in 1986, following nearly a decade of military rule, when she was welcomed by tumultuous mobs as the leader who could deliver the country from the darkness of the Zia years. "It is almost impossible to exaggerate the weight of expectation which her return aroused," author Ian Talbot wrote of her election as prime minister in 1988.

Yet even though she was an inspiration to Pakistan's poor voters, Bhutto proved a disappointing ruler. She traveled widely abroad and was extremely popular in Washington, and she enacted economic policies aimed at attracting foreign investment and reducing Pakistan's appalling poverty.

But she failed to control a series of domestic conflicts, especially a spiral of ethnic and sectarian violence in Karachi, her native city. She was accused of trying to manipulate the courts and the press and of stooping to multiple acts of petty self-enrichment while in power. She was forced from office after two years, then reelected in 1993 and forced out a second time after three more years.

Many of the corruption charges involved her husband, businessman Asif Ali Zardari, who was snidely referred to as "Mr. 10 Percent." The pair were accused of taking kickbacks for government contracts, on items from imported tractors to steel mill improvements, and of hiding their gains in international bank accounts and real estate.

Zardari was also accused of drug trafficking and of involvement in the 1996 murder of Bhutto's brother Murtaza, who was widely described as creating political problems for her. In 1999, husband and wife were sentenced to five years in prison; Zardari ended up spending eight years behind bars, but Bhutto, who was abroad at the time, did not return.

Bhutto consistently denied the charges and said they were politically motivated, but the scandals disillusioned many of her followers. Meanwhile, her lofty ideals gradually sank to the level of a petty rivalry with her political nemesis, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League, who was elected prime minister twice, partly because of her failures in office.

Bhutto spent much of the last decade living abroad with her three children, largely to avoid prosecution. But early this year, she began quietly negotiating to return to her troubled homeland, where she still harbored dreams of returning to power and where some Western officials viewed a co-government headed by Bhutto and Pakistan's military president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, as the best option for short-term stability.

Bhutto had been warned by friends and advisers not to return to Pakistan. Islamic terrorism was on the rise there, and the country's increasingly emboldened Islamic militants viewed her as a dangerously secular figure who was essentially the Western candidate for prime minister.

The degree of danger became starkly clear just hours after Bhutto's triumphant homecoming Oct. 18. As her caravan crawled through welcoming crowds in the port city of Karachi, two massive bombs exploded, sparing her life but killing more than 140 people.

On Nov. 3, Musharraf declared emergency rule and Bhutto was placed under house arrest twice in the days that followed. But despite the restrictions and the risks, she continued speaking out against both military dictatorship and Islamic extremism.

Once elections were announced for January, she toyed briefly with the idea of a boycott but soon began campaigning in earnest, seeking out the crowds that idolized her and attempting to stage events that would echo her past political triumphs. In was in such a place, Liaquat Garden in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, that Bhutto met her fate.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company