The New York Times, Editorial, October 19, 2007
It’s no surprise that Benazir Bhutto’s return to Pakistan was painstakingly choreographed: She emerged from her plane in Karachi yesterday clutching a Koran and dressed in Pakistan’s national colors. Comebacks, after all, are her specialty. Since her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed in 1979, she’s been elected prime minister twice, deposed twice on charges of corruption and self-exiled twice. Now, at 54, she’s back for another try.
Ms. Bhutto got a swift and horrifying reminder of how close Pakistan is to the brink — and of what she’s up against — when explosions ripped through the crowds near her motorcade last night, killing scores of people.
It’s hard to see her return as a victory for democracy, especially since it is the result of a dubious deal with Gen. Pervez Musharraf that grants him another five years in the presidency. Nor is it a great triumph for the rule of law, since, in exchange for playing ball with the general, Ms. Bhutto has been handed a convenient amnesty that wipes out serious corruption charges dating back to her years as prime minister. Without that protection, she would have risked possible imprisonment by returning home.
Still, letting her back in to lead her party’s ticket in the soon-to-be-held parliamentary elections is an important step forward for a country that has been subjected to eight years of essentially one-man rule and has grown ever more polarized.
Ms. Bhutto’s greatest challenge will be to redeem this tawdry trade-off by using her popularity and skills to leverage this modest political opening into something resembling genuine democracy. Her first step should be to insist that those parliamentary elections are open to all, including her longtime political rival, Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister. His previous tenure, like hers, was badly flawed. But they are Pakistan’s two most popular politicians, and without the participation of both of them there can be no Pakistani democracy.
Washington’s help will be crucial in this effort. For too long it has coddled General Musharraf for his supposedly stalwart policies against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But recently, those policies have seemed scarcely more credible than his hollow promises to accept the constraints of law and democracy or his commitment to free elections.
After belatedly recognizing that the general’s misrule was dangerously strengthening, not weakening, extremist forces in Pakistan, Washington helped engineer the deal that permitted Ms. Bhutto’s return. Now, it must help her and Pakistan truly move toward democracy.