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Pakistan's Bhutto turns up heat as campaign comes to a close

Her prominent features almost entirely shielded by a traditional head scarf and tinted sunglasses, she sits on a wooden stage in this dusty, impoverished town 25 miles from the Afghan border, a cup of tea balanced on her lap. Well-wishers scramble to give her prayers written on little scraps of paper, which she tucks under a rubber band around her right wrist. Stretched before her far into the distance, an expanse of jostling supporters chants over and over in a rhythmic low hum, "One God, one prophet, Benazir is innocent."

Her father, Pakistan's leader for six years in the 1970s, was executed by the military regime that followed his. Both of her brothers are accused terrorists: One was killed by poison, and the other is in exile. Her mother is said to be in self-exile overseas. Her husband is in jail on a kidnapping charge. And she faces six different charges of corruption.

But Benazir Bhutto _ a 37-year-old mother of two small children who became the first woman to lead a modern Islamic state before losing power in a constitutional coup _ is about to do what she does best: play to 25,000 or more peasants who have come from miles around and waited hours in the sun.

"Daughter of democracy," a local politician, warming up the already heated crowd, screams into the stage microphone.

"Ben-NAH-zeer," the swirling mass immediately replies on cue in long, low tones, as if praying.

"Leader of the poor."

"Ben-NAH-zeer."

"Leader of the dispossessed."

"Ben-NAH-zeer."

Rising to the microphone, her voice weak and strained, she meets the now roaring crowd with her own words: "I have come to give you your freedom. I will lead you to freedom.

"The voice of this country is not the voice of Gulum Ishaq Khan," she proclaims, her voice gaining strength with the attack on Pakistan's president, the man who dismissed her 20-month-old government Aug. 6.

"It is the voice of the people, that of the laborers. The voice of the arrow," she cries, invoking one of her party symbols.

"Arrow! Arrow! Arrow!" continues the return of the crowd, even as she and her campaign party are fighting to make their way off the platform and through a surge of supporters surrounding her four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Guards, perched on the Mitsubishi's rear bumper with AK-47 machine guns slung over their shoulders, kick at those who cling to her car. People fall; small trees are trampled. And 45 minutes after she arrived like a storm, Bhutto is gone _ on to the next stop, the next group desperately waiting.

With campaign time running out before Pakistan's national elections Wednesday, it is a show of high emotion and little substance that will be repeated at more than a half-dozen stops along 20 miles of road from Mardan to Peshhawar, the capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

The province, a stronghold of fundamentalist Islam, is by no means the exclusive territory of Bhutto, whose party represents a moderate form of Islamic socialism. But the roadside is papered with her banners, and the road itself is jammed by her procession of supporters, standing on the flatbeds of trucks, crammed into horse carts and battered buses.

The strength of the show itself does not indicate she will regain the prime minister's office, which she won in 1988 in the country's first election in 11 years.

And the side of Bhutto that is not on display _ the Radcliffe- and Oxford-educated, political pragmatist _ seems to know it.

What is already abundantly clear, she adds with more spark in her voice, is that the powers that be in Pakistan fear her.

The smear campaigns _ including publication last week of an apparently forged letter to a U.S. senator's aide encouraging the recent cut-off of military aid _ "indicates the opposition has no policy issues with which to take on" her party other than "character assassination," she says.

All this is just part of "Pakistan's perennial problem," she says, "the inability of the people to accept martial law and the inability of the establishment to accept a democratic government."

That said, her handlers signal that it is time to go.

Another swirling mass of Pakistan's poor is forming on one of Peshawar's side streets, awaiting the arrival of their "daughter of democracy," awaiting the moment when they can chant to her in one voice: "Ben-NAH-zeer."

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