The tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto ’73 rocked both Pakistan and the world. An articulate, charismatic, Harvard and Oxford-educated leader who was the first female elected leader of a Muslim nation, Bhutto has been eulogized by the international media as a saintly figure who was Pakistan’s greatest hope. Yet while there is no question that her death was an unfortunate event that has thrown Pakistan into disarray, Bhutto was not the panacea that many remember her as or wanted her to be.
As prime minister, Bhutto was a reformer and was a strong advocate of women’s rights. While in office from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996, she dramatically reduced Pakistan’s budget deficit, undertook widely-acclaimed privatization programs, and encouraged foreign investment. Her efforts in many areas, such as women’s rights, were often hampered by traditionalist opponents, but she left an indelible mark on Pakistani politics and was beloved by many.
But her tenures were also marked by rampant corruption and her failure to carry through more ambitious reform. Her government was twice dismissed because of accusations of corruption. The rings of bribery, patronage, and money-laundering centered on her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who garnered the nickname “Mister Ten Percent” due to his cut on all government contracts. In 2004, Swiss magistrates found both Bhutto and Zardari guilty of money laundering. Other evidence has amassed in France and Poland indicating extensive investments and shady deals. In one striking case, Pakistani investigators reportedly found that a gold dealer deposited $10 million dollars in one of Zardari’s accounts for exclusive trading rights in Pakistan. The total extent of the corruption may still lie in shadow.
Perhaps Bhutto truly would have revived Pakistan’s democracy, which has been on life support under President Pervez Musharraf. And perhaps she would have been the best prime minister for both the Pakistani people and the interests of the United States. But given her track record, it is naïve to think that Bhutto would have quickly and single-handedly turned Pakistan around.
Pakistan is a country in extremely dire straits, and given its tradition of corruption, nepotism, and violence—of which Bhutto’s assassination and the ascension of her 19-year-old son and husband to the leadership of her Pakistan Peoples Party is just the latest chapter—there is no clear path forward. Bhutto was, at most, the best of several mediocre alternatives. Her assassination should not cast her political career in a rosier light.
Yet the past week has seen the continual distortion of Bhutto’s life by politicians and media desperate to make her death fit their agenda. Musharraf’s government has sought to deflect criticism by denying an autopsy and investigation and blaming her recklessness and radical militants for her death. In America, presidential candidates have used the assassination as a platform to talk up their experience on foreign policy and national security issues. Even on the Harvard campus, Harvard Right to Life has begun a campaign against the legality of gender-selective abortion in the U.S. in Bhutto’s honor, even though the distasteful practice is virtually non-existent in this country, and advocating for its abolition in South Asia was but a tiny portion of Bhutto’s career and message.
It’s wrong to make Benazir Bhutto into a patron saint for every cause and to ignore the more uncomfortable lessons of her life. These are dark times ahead for Pakistan, but the memory of Bhutto would be best served by honesty.
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