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Skepticism tinges support for Bhutto

The Pakistani leader is popular, but some ask what she has to offer after two disastrous stints as prime minister.

December 03, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

KARACHI, PAKISTAN — Benazir Bhutto's image is visible throughout Lyari, one of Karachi's oldest and most desperate neighborhoods. It is stamped on political posters that can't paper over cracks in the buckling buildings and billows out on bedsheets that hang from rooftops and flutter with every breeze that lifts the dust and stirs the garbage.

Despite a decade in exile, Bhutto is still a presence in this multi-ethnic inner-city ghetto of 1.6 million people that has been solidly behind her Pakistan People's Party since the 1970s, when it was led by her father. Yet even in Lyari, along the rutted alleys that double as outdoor schools and past the dozens of "Chinese Dentist" stores, there is only tempered enthusiasm for the woman campaigning to recapture the prime minister's job she held twice in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Neither democracy nor martial law has made much difference to the lives in Lyari. Sewage runs through the alleys as it always has, and jobs are hard to find. Outsiders continue to come to the neighborhood to buy their hashish, the drug commerce fueling gang wars that police show little inclination to stop.

Bhutto's brand of secular politics has always leaned heavily on the rhetoric of social and economic justice, designed to appeal to the Pakistani underclass. But as she launched her election campaign over the weekend in the northern city of Peshawar, her previous stints in office were being widely remembered as disappointing, the promises of a fairer society scuttled amid charges of personal corruption and the expedient decision to cater to Muslim extremists.

"Nothing changed for us when she was in power," says Lal Baksh Rind, a longtime community activist in Lyari and a political rival of Bhutto's PPP. Rind acknowledges that Lyari is still Bhutto's turf. But he says few people believe reelecting her will end their despair.

"Some people think that if she comes back she will give them jobs -- that's why they will vote for her," he says, sitting cross-legged on his bed in a tiny, damp house beneath a portrait of Karl Marx and a painting of Iranian soldiers burning U.S. flag.

"But fix Lyari? The infrastructure is so bad -- no sewers, no services. No politician can fix it."

Bhutto, however, is not shying away from raising expectations. Her platform for elections scheduled to be held Jan. 8 is a cascade of promises designed to appeal to the millions of poor left out of much-trumpeted economic growth under eight years of rule by President Pervez Musharraf.

Bhutto has pledged to give at least one year of employment to each of Pakistan's poorest families, and to offer micro-financing for 5 million people to start small businesses. She also vowed that, by 2015, all children ages 5 to 10 would be enrolled in school.

The theme of social and economic justice was a hallmark of the PPP under its founder, the revered Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir's father, who was hanged almost three decades ago after a military coup by Gen. Zia ul-Haq. Benazir's supporters acknowledge that part of her appeal derives from her father's legacy, and his face is a ghostly presence on many of the posters and billboards touting his daughter's return to politics.

That's especially true in Lyari, which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto saw as a place to build a political base during his rise to power. It was during Bhutto's time as prime minister that Lyari was given its first underground sewage system and schools were built, and the era is remembered as a time when politicians paid attention.

The Bhutto name still resonates here.

"Democratic institutions are not very powerful and people think there is no reason to vote," says Mohammed Asghar Baloch, a member of Lyari's vibrant community of east African descendants.

"But there are some who think that whenever a Bhutto comes to power the lower classes will get jobs. That's what they are hoping for now," said Baloch, who runs a government school in Lyari.

Although much of the chattering class debate in Pakistan focuses on constitutional issues, economic themes formed the backbone of Bhutto's campaign launch in Peshawar, a stronghold of religious parties. Even her pitch for resolving the confrontation between the government and Islamic extremists is rooted in economics.

"The Pakistan People's Party will give them security, peace and employment," she said, referring to the region's conservative, ethnic Pashtun population. She added that she would "bring development to their areas so their problems will be solved."

Bhutto is unlikely to make major electoral inroads in the north. But she is counting on the pitch for economic justice to win voters in the heavily populated south and east of the country, where the election probably will be decided.

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