Despite her assassination, Benazir Bhutto was to play a major role in Pakistan’s 2008 rally. Her recorded voice and her picture meant she was the star at election rallies addressed by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, a dodgy businessman converted into the guardian of the Bhutto martyr cult – a handy propaganda weapon for a party led by wealthy landowners but drawing most of its votes from the poor, some of whom call for socialist revolution. This is my account of a rally in the city of Faisalabad, written at the time.
The Benazir cult is at its height in Faisalabad, an industrial city in Punjab province where her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, has chosen to hold the last of his small number of election rallies.
The Benazir tape plays again and again. Her image is everywhere – on banners, on posters and on placards held by the faithful. Sometimes her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, gets into the picture, too. He was the party’s founder and its first martyr, when General Zia ul-Haq deposed him as prime minister and then had him hanged.
The martyrology appeals to Rayur Abbas, who, judging by his references to the battle of Kerbala and the death of Ali, is a Shia-Moslem and has the Shia admiration for sacrifice and solidarity with the oppressed.
“Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first prime minister in Pakistan who give the courage to the lowest persons of this country,” he says. “Before Zulfikar Ali Bhutto the lowest persons could not talk with the rich persons, their owners where they do the work. He gave us the courage to speak against the rich persons which don’t give you the rights.”
The fact that the Bhuttos and many other PPP leaders are big landowners, often called “feudal” by their critics, doesn’t worry him.
“In the circumstances of Pakistan, the poor person cannot participate in the political system because this is the old game of money … There is no doubt that the rich persons are leading us but the training of the Pakistan People’s Party is, if you cannot support the poor persons, you cannot live in our party.”
The Bhutto family is the only family in Pakistan to have sacrificed their lives for their convictions, he says.
“The others have not a single sacrifice – not a little scratch of the skin. But Benazir Bhutto – I salute her.”
Under an increasingly hot sun, a crowd of thousands assembles. Many are clearly poor. There are representatives of the local tobacco-workers’ union which is supporting the PPP. Women file in through a separate entrance, where they are frisked by female cops and party workers. A large delegation of students chants “Benazir zindabad!” – “Long live Benazir!”
One of their leaders, Ali Hassan Bukhari, strikes a radical note, which seems inconsistent with the party’s record in government.
“We want a socialist revolution here in Pakistan,” he declares.” And every problem will be solved through revolution. No reformism, we don’t want any reformism. The need of the hour is a socialist revolution. That is the only solution, not only for the students but for all people of this country and, also, not only for this country but for the whole world.”
Zardari, whose nickname is “Mr Ten Per-cent” because of his reputation for corruption when his wife was prime minister, doesn’t seem to have this course of action in mind. Recently he told the newspapers that he was ready to form a coalition government of all parties, including Musharraf’s allies, the PML-Q.
Bukhari feels that is due to pressure from journalists.
“When our leader goes to a media person, his thinking is something else,” he says and adds that the real Zardari reveals himself when he speaks to the ordinary people.
After four hours of chanting and speeches, Zardari finally speaks.
He declares that democracy will be the best revenge for his wife’s death and hints that he may shift the balance of power away from Punjab, which is perceived as dominating the country’s politics and the military, declaring that equality between all the provinces is the best way to avoid animosity against Punjabis.
The crowd pours into the street as soon as Zardari finishes. A car with two young men in it zig-zags through the traffic, playing a tape of Benazir at full volume with the windows down.
For all my reports for RFI on the 2008 Pakistan election click here.