Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 APU Person of the Year: Benazir Bhutto

For the first time, is choosing a Person of the Year who has passed on before the start of the New Year.

There was really no question that Benazir Bhutto, the two-time prime minister of Pakistan, would be this year’s choice. Even before her assassination this month, she would have been chosen in a tie along with Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf.

The pair had dominated news in the Asia Pacific region in the run up to January’s national election, which now may be postponed. Musharraf has been under pressure from the West because of the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The fundamentalist group often operated across the border in western Pakistan.

Supporters of slain Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto ...
Mon Dec 31, 8:18 PM ET
Supporters of slain Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto light candles in Lahore December 31, 2007. Pakistani electoral officials will decide on Tuesday whether to go ahead with a Jan. 8 poll, with expectations it will be delayed by up to two months after Benazir Bhutto's killing. Picture taken December 31, 2007.

The Pakistani president agreed to hold elections and to remove his military uniform after outside calls for greater democratization in his country. This provided the opportunity for Benazir Bhutto to return from exile in the United Arab Emirates and run for the prime minister’s office for the third time. Originally the idea had been for Musharraf and Bhutto to arrange some sort of power-sharing deal.

Both are basically allied against the growing power of Islamic fundamentalists and extremists in the country. However, after a bomb blast shortly after Bhutto arrived nearly killed the former prime minister, the first female to lead a modern Muslim-dominated state.

Musharraf declared a state of emergency and curbed Bhutto’s freedom of movement igniting a conflict between the two and basically driving them on separate paths. Bhutto and her party claimed that Musharraf was using his power to influence the elections.

However, opinion polls had shown that she was well ahead of the competition in the race for prime minister. Bhutto insisted on making direct contact with the people and it was this conviction that contributed to her death. She was attacked and killed while waving to onlookers from the roof window of her armored transport vehicle.

She met the same fate as her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister who was executed after a suspicious trial for authorizing the murder of a political opponent. Both her parents were Shi’a Muslims in a country dominated by Sunnis. Benazir also lost two brothers under suspicious circumstances.

Born in 1953, Benazir earned a Bachelor of Arts with cum laude honors in comparative government from Harvard University. She was elected Phi Beta Kappa. She also attended Oxford in the United Kingdom where she became the first Asian woman president of the Oxford Union. In 1987, she married Asif Ali Zardari.

Benazir’s election as prime minister in 1988 was a milestone for women in the Muslim world although for the most part women throughout most of the country had little opportunity for equality. Bhutto had promised reforms including repealing the anti-woman Zina and Hudood ordinances but was unable to deliver because of the strength of the opposition and the problems she had maintaining a stable government.

Bhutto and her husband were the target of many charges of corruption that eventually ended her government. She went into self-imposed exile in 1998. She has left a controversial legacy. Her niece, for example, has accused here of complicity in the killing of her brother Murtaza Bhutto in 1996. Her husband spent eight years in jail on corruption charges.

Her death has left Pakistan severely destabilized but in the end it may contribute to her reputation as an agent of change. In typical South Asian dynastic style, it appears her son and husband will take over her party, the Pakistan People’s Party, founded by her father in 1967.

So, we name Benazir Bhutto as the APU Person of the Year in 2007, and may she rest in peace.