The PPP has seen many ups and downs. It has been in government on four different occasions. However, with all its appeal, it still finds itself relegated to the position of a provincial party and seems to be losing national relevance.
The renewed and much-awaited efforts by the PPP leadership to revive the party as a countrywide political entity and a force to reckon with in the political arena of the country seem to have fizzled out as the young political heir of the Bhutto clan, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, could not make a big impact.
The PPP was founded by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) in 1967. He did this after resigning as foreign minister. General Ayub Khan is said to have groomed him in politics. Once in power, ZAB took his party to great heights of glory. The irony is that the PPP could not win impressive substantial number of parliamentary seats in the last elections held in 2013. Almost all of its 40 odd NA seats were won in the party’s stronghold, Sindh, while in the Punjab; the party could win only a single NA seat.
In elections in 1970, the PPP won handsomely in the then West Pakistan
while it could not win a single seat in East Pakistan ( now Bangladesh). The PPP formed a government in the leftover Pakistan and Zulfiqar Bhutto ruled first as civilian chief martial law administrator and then as an elected prime minister till he was sent packing by the military under General Zia in July 1977. Bhutto was later hanged by General Zia in 1979 through a verdict of the Supreme Court of Pakistan which was deemed as questionable.
As political heir of ZAB, his daughter Benazir Bhutto went in exile along with her family members but returned to Pakistan riding on a tidal wave of sympathy in 1986 and became Prime Minister after the death of Gen. Ziaul Haq. He died in an air crash in 1988. She became the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan on December 2, 1988. She was also the first woman to head a Muslim majority nation. Her government was dismissed on August 7, 1990 on charges of corruption and nepotism. She again became Prime Minister of Pakistan on October 19, 1993 and her second tenure lasted till November 5, 1996.
After Gen (R) Pervez Musharraf dismissed Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister in 1999, Benazir went into self-exile, fearing punishment due to her family’s alleged involvement in financial corruption. She returned in 2007 to lead her party in the general elections after a deal with Gen. Musharraf but was killed by a suicide bomber in December. Because of her death, the elections were delayed till February 2008.
New stories of corruption by the PPP appeared during its five year rule under Asif Zardari which lasted from 2008-2013. Asif Zardari has been single-handedly running the affairs of the PPP since the death of his wife. He got himself appointed as President of Pakistan and dictated instructions to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani and later Raja Pervez Ashraf. Zardari has also mentored his son Bilawal but the dark shadow of his father and his own lack of leadership qualities have prevented Bilawal from becoming a true and influential leader.
More importantly, the PPP’s immature stance on political issues facing the country like terrorism, extremism and financial corruption and its inability to meaningfully contribute to its signature slogan, Roti, Kapra aur Makan have also reduced the political stature of the party.
If one looks into the history of the PPP, some very important inconsistencies in policy and strategy emerge. From its initial socialist agenda promoted by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the PPP has veered towards some kind of vague capitalism. More importantly, from a national political party, it is now confined only to Sindh. From a party with a national outlook, the PPP is now largely a Sindhi ethno-linguistic party. While the charges of financial corruption in its first stint may have been entirely concocted, the PPP is now extensively involved in large-scale financial corruption.
From the study of history of the PPP and the changing politics of the party, the contention of the behaviorist political scholars becomes clear - that the personalities of leaders have a strong bearing on the policies and outcomes of their institutions. For instance, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had a distinct impact on the party and its politics. It would be wrong to call him a communist but he did adopt a leftist ideology. However, had he been a true leftist, he would not have served as commerce minister or as a foreign minister under Gen. Ayub Khan, because the latter subscribed to the capitalist model. It was probably only under the influence of his leftist party ideologues like J.A. Rahim and Dr. Mubashir Hassan that he adopted leftist policies such as large-scale land reforms and nationalizing industries, banking and insurance. Such measures cultivated the social and political base of the PPP. Even to this day, the PPP has some relevance because of its initial leftist profile. As mostly farmers and peasants benefitted from the land reforms of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Sindh, the party still has a support base there.
It is important to note that while today U-turns are associated with Imran Khan but, historically speaking, the PPP in its different regimes took 180 degree turns from its past policies and programmes. For instance, during the rule of ZAB, the economic policy of nationalization was pursued vigorously. But during both the regimes of Benazir Bhutto from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996 a new policy of public-private partnership was claimed to be the cornerstone of her government policy. ZAB pursued the nationalization policy under the general global trend of socialism. Whether he was committed to it or not is quite questionable. With the growing influence of Muslim clerical forces and ZAB’s need of these forces in domestic politics, he raised the strange slogan of ‘Islamic Socialism.’ The slogan was totally unjustified as Marxist and Maoist strands of communist thought never gave any role to religion in a socialist society. In fact, Karl Marx declared religion as an ‘opiate of the people.’ As a result, both nationalization and the slogan of Islamic Socialism become so discredited that even ZAB’s own daughter never pursued or raised it.
It was Benazir’s regime in 1996 which sponsored the creation of the Afghan Taliban movement as was admitted by her interior minister and henchman, Major General (R) Naseerullah Babar. However, later the PPP leadership took credit for waging a decisive struggle against the extremism and terrorism of Pakistani Taliban, which emerged as an extension of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan.
Apart from ideological and policy inconsistencies and uncertainty in various regimes of the PPP, another very important development which had a great influence on the party’s politics and policies was the marriage of Benazir with Asif Ali Zardari in 1987. Arguably, Zardari has been the most important personality in the party in the last three decades. He has been influencing the politics and policies of Benazir and of those who came later. He is also alleged to have a generally perceived involvement in colossal financial corruption scams and abuse of power which has inflicted irreparable damage on the party. Under ZAB, there never were any charges against the party and its leadership of any financial corruption. Zardari spent nearly 11 years in jail on the basis of these allegations of financial corruption.
As mentioned earlier, since the killing of Benazir, Zardari attempted to
The PPP’s immature stance on political issues facing the country like terrorism, extremism and financial corruption and its inability to meaningfully contribute to its signature slogan, Roti, Kapra aur Makan have also reduced the political stature of the party.
completely dominate the PPP. Firstly, he appropriated for himself the position of the head of state and secondly he appointed a relatively weak person like Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister, so that he could dictate to him. This proved more than correct when Gilani refused, as ordered by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, to write a letter to the Swiss authorities to open cases of money laundering. Consequently, he was given a symbolic punishment of a few seconds by the apex court, disqualifying him as prime minister.
Following the death of Benazir, Zardari declared as per the ‘will’ of the former, that Bilawal would be given the charge of the PPP. Acting upon the said will, Zardari made Bilawal Chairperson of the party, with himself as Co-Chairperson because Bilawal was too young to take charge. The arrangement was put in place to groom Bilawal as a future leader.
Obviously, Zardari did not want to risk giving full authority to Bilawal for fear of disturbing the applecart. After remaining for nearly ten years under the tutelage of Zardari, Bilawal got symbolic hold of the party but the father is still conspicuously calling the shots. His style of politics and running the affairs of the PPP may have strengthened his personal grip but has irreparably damaged the party.
By agreeing to help Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N in times of political crisis, Zardari has given up the role of an opposition party to secure the government’s support to the PPP’s misrule in Sindh. One example of this quiet agreement between Zardari and Nawaz Sharif is the refusal of the PPP to take the Panama corruption case to the Supreme Court. It is generally said that the iron-fisted and repressive rule of Gen. Zia could not eliminate the PPP but Zardari’s strategy has nearly wrecked the party’s ship. The multiple launchings of Bilawal as the new face of the PPP have completely failed. The next national elections could be held any time, depending on the outcome of Panama leaks case and the completion of tenure by the incumbent government. In the middle of all this, the PPP is far from having become a political force that could be expected to have a formidable presence in the next elections.
The writer holds a doctoral degree in International Relations and is a political-economy and security analyst specializing on South and Central Asia and the Muslim world.