With 94 seats in a house of 207, Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had assumed the reigns of power in 1988 knowing that a hung parliament might prove to be a thorn in the side for the new government. And so it proved, as Benazir struggled to assert herself or her party’s mandate on the status quo.
In the corridors of power, there was deep-rooted opposition and skepticism to Benazir’s person and to her party that claimed to espouse liberal and progressive values. Politics was firmly considered a man’s game and Benazir would have to fight the age-old perception that it was un-Islamic for any woman to be the head of state (though in her case she was head of goverment).
She countered this view by claiming that despite having been raised as a modern woman, she was a true Muslim. After entering active politics, she began wearing a dupatta (head scarf), shalwar kameez and supported moves to adhere to an Islamic code of life. Her wedding ceremony too was conducted according to Islamic traditions. And yet, her efforts to change biases fell on deaf ears.
Although democracy had returned in 1988, Benazir soon discovered that her powers as prime minister were severely clipped
But perhaps, this demonisation of her person was just the tip of the iceberg.
Benazir decided to adopt a conciliatory position because she believed that she would not be tolerated by the various power players she was surrounded by. Her first move was to maintain amicable ties with the powerful president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, as well as the army. Central to her disagreements was the matter of power — how much of it could be exerted by the prime minister and how much of it was to be exercised by the president.
Since Gen Ziaul Haq’s time, the balance of power had constitutionally been skewed towards the president. Through the Eighth Amendment, for example, Gen Zia had given the president the right to unilaterally dissolve the National Assembly and the incumbent government.
Benazir attempted to redress the imbalance but found many obstacles in her way. In his book Trial and Error (2002), Iqbal Akhund, one of Benazir’s confidantes who also served in the foreign office during her first regime, argues that Benazir could have prevailed had she adhered to her principles without caring for the fragile support she’d receive in the National Assembly.
This was a difficult path to tread, although it was also a more probable way to succeed in the long run. She began to follow this guideline but soon lost control of things. Ties with the presidency, army, and judiciary all went sour, and everything was lost before the brakes could be applied.
Among the first disagreements between Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan was over the appointment of judges to higher courts and the appointment and transfers of senior officers in the armed forces. In both cases, the prime minister could only recommend changes but not make them.
Many of Benazir’s proposed changes to internal policy were rejected by the president, who asked her to have them passed through the parliament instead. The president knew full well that the prime minister would never head to the National Assembly because she did not have enough support in the house.
Then there was the issue of the army chief. Gen Mirza Aslam Baig, who had been promoted as the chief of army staff (COAS) immediately after the Bahawalpur crash, was scheduled to retire in August 1991. Traditionally, the outgoing chief of a service recommends the name of his potential successor to the government. In case of a difference of opinion, the prime minister or president (as the case may be) can nominate another officer of their choice.
When discussions came about regarding Gen Baig’s future, Benazir recalled that he was instrumental in having constitutional rule restored after the Bahawalpur air crash. He was the first senior military officer to reach Islamabad and he was the one who immediately called the other two service chiefs — Admiral Iftikhar Ahmad Sirohey and Air Chief Marshal Hakeemullah Khan Durrani — into a three-hour-long meeting.
Gen Baig convinced the other two to restore the constitution and subsequently, power was handed over to Senate Chairman Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who was to hold elections to the national and provincial assemblies as scheduled. Later on, Gen Baig would tell PPP leaders that it was he who brought Benazir Bhutto to power.
Although Gen Baig was confirmed as a four-star general by Benazir, and also awarded the Tamgha-i-Jamhooriat, the prime minister did not recommend an extension to his service. This move was supported by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who promptly appointed Gen Asif Nawaz as the new COAS.
The appointment of the chief of the joint staff committee (CJSC) also widened the fissures between the PM and the president. Benazir wanted to extend the tenure of Admiral Sirohey after the completion of his first stint but she ran into constitutional wrangles once again. Admiral Sirohey had been appointed on November 10, 1988 — a month before Benazir’s ascension as the PM — and was to retire on August 17, 1991.
The post of CJSC practically does not offer any authority over the three combating forces; the service chiefs retain charge of their command authority. The position had been created in March 1976 by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in an attempt to better coordinate the actions of the three staff chiefs and to tend to their operational requirements.
After taking oath as the prime minister, Benazir believed that she was the authority to appoint the CJSC. She was wrong. Gen Zia had amended this clause and handed decision-making authority to the president. When the communiqué from PM Bhutto about Admiral Sirohey’s extension reached President Ishaq Khan, it was shot down. After completing his tenure on August 17, Admiral Sirohey was relieved and Gen Shamim Alam Khan was appointed in his place.
Even though the Benazir-Ishaq row over the balance of power eventually reached a settlement, the tussle did not end there. With one hatchet buried, many more were set to swing in the days to come.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 2nd, 2016