Benazir Bhutto

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Benazir Bhutto

Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto (21 June 1953 – Rawalpindi, 27 December 2007) was a Pakistani politician who served as prime minister of the country from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996. She was the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a democratic party founded by her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had been prime minister of Pakistan in the 1970s. Her return to Pakistan in late 2007 was brokered by the U.S., with the expectation that elections scheduled for Jan. 8, 2008, would confirm democracy in Pakistan. She was assassinated at a rally in Rawalpindi; authorities blamed Taliban allies; al-Qaeda, however, claimed responsibility[1]. On 11 July 2008, the United Nations announced it was setting up an independent enquiry into the circumstances surrounding Bhutto's death[2].

Her Pakistan People's Party is now led by her son, 19-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and in effect by her widower Asif Ali Zardari. Bhutto's life was stalked by death. Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, himself a former prime minister, was hanged in 1979 by Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator who overthrew him. Her two brothers died in mysterious and violent circumstances.

She was a political activist with the PPP, 1977-84, but repeatedly imprisoned and kept under house arrest by the Pakistani government. She lived in political exile in London, 1984-86, returning to Pakistan in April, 1986. After elections in November, 1988, she became Prime Minister in 1988 but her government was overthrown by Nawaz in August 1990. She again came to power after her party won a majority in elections held in October 1993. Her government was once again dismissed in November 1996, this time by General Musharraf, who continues in power in 2008.


Benazir was born in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, as the oldest of four children born to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nusrat Ispahani Bhutto. Because of her fair complexion, Benazir was called “Pinky” by family members. Although she came from a Muslim family, she studied at schools run by the Catholic Church in Pakistan.

In 1969, at the age of 16, Benazir moved to the United States, where she studied at Radcliffe College (part of Harvard University), where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in comparative government. As a student in the United States, she took part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and for women’s rights. From 1973 and 1977 she studied political science, economics and diplomacy at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. She joined the Oxford Union, the famous debating society, and became the first Asian woman to be elected its president.

In 1977 she returned to Pakistan, where she was given a minor post in the government. However, some days after her arrival her father was deposed by General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who became the country's dictator until 1988. Ali Bhutto was arrested and hanged on 4 April 1979 and Benazir and her mother succeeded him as leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party. Regarded as a threat, Benazir was placed under house arrest by the dictatorship. In 1984 she was allowed by the government to travel to London to receive medical treatment for an injury she had suffered during an arrest. While she was there her brother Shahnawaz, who was living in Paris, was poisoned. Benazir brought her brother’s body to Pakistan to be buried and accused the government of being responsible for his death – an act that led to her exile from the country.

After martial law was lifted in Pakistan in 1985, Benazir Bhutto was able to return to the country in January of the following year. Greeted by huge crowds, she worked to enhance the position of the PPP in the country. On 18 December 1987 she married Asif Ali Zardari, a businessman who like herself came from the Sindh province and belonged to an affluent family. The union came as a surprise to Benazir’s Western friends, as it was promoted by her mother, following the Pakistani tradition of arranged marriages. The couple had one son, Bilawal, and two daughters, Bakhtawar and Aseefa.

Despite General Zia’s announcement of free elections for 1988, his promise was regarded with suspicion. After his death in a plane crash in August 1988, the Chairman of the Senate, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, became president and decided to go forward with the promised elections. Bhutto, as leader of the PPP, ran for the post of Prime Minister. Her party won 94 seats out of 207 in the National Assembly and Bhutto was invited to form a government.


  1. M. Ilyas Khan, "Bhutto murder: the key questions", BBC report 31 December 2007
  2. International Herald Tribune (Associated Press), "UN agrees to inquiry on killing of Bhutto in Pakistan", July 11, 2008