Benazir Bhutto & Pakistan's Political History

by Mahrukh Husain

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If we were to highlight key figures of IGCSE & O Level Pakistan Studies who made significant contributions to Pakistan’s political history, Benazir Bhutto would rank among the top names in that list. 

Born into one of South Asia’s greatest political dynasties, Benazir Bhutto broke gender barriers by becoming the first female Prime Minister of a Muslim-majority country. In addition, she was always a staunch supporter of democracy throughout her political career. In this article, we will explore Benazir Bhutto’s rise to power, her political achievements as well as the challenges she faced throughout her political reign. 


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Who Was Benazir Bhutto?

Benazir Bhutto was the eldest daughter of former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a populist leader whose slogan for roti, kapra aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter) managed to garner tremendous support amongst the general public. Having studied subjects such as comparative government, international law and diplomacy, economics and politics at prestigious universities like Harvard and Oxford, Benazir Bhutto held a firm belief in the power of democracy, a trait that would enable her to bring about positive changes within the country. 


Benazir Bhutto, chairwoman PPP and first female Prime Minister of Pakistan, is a key figure of O Level Pakistan Studies for her views towards democracy as she carved her way through political history.


Benazir's Early Rise to Power

Benazir Bhutto’s entry into politics was a tumultuous one as it began with a military coup organized by the then Chief of Army Staff, General Zia-ul-Haq, who ended up overthrowing her father’s government. Together with her brother, Murtaza Bhutto, Benazir became now President Zia-ul-Haq’s biggest opposer, a move which ultimately cost her her freedom. After enduring exile from 1984 to 1986 (following her newfound role as head of her father’s political party – the PPP), Benazir finally got the opportunity she needed to make a difference in the political landscape. President Zia had passed away in a mysterious plane crash, leaving behind a vacuum that desperately needed to be filled. In the subsequent elections, Benazir Bhutto’s PPP won in a landslide victory. 


Benazir Bhutto’s Achievements

Prime Minister (1988-1990)

After winning the single largest bloc of seats in the National Assembly, Benazir Bhutto made history by becoming the first female prime minister of a Muslim-majority country. However, her first term as prime minister was not without its challenges. 

When a coalition formed with independent parliamentarians fell through, Benazir found that she could not pass legislation that would help address some of Pakistan’s most critical issues such as widespread poverty, government corruption and increasing crime. In addition, her government endured a volatile relationship with the military establishment. Soon after, the then-president of Pakistan, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, dismissed her government on charges of corruption and then called for new elections. 


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Second term as Prime Minister (1993-1996)

In the elections of 1993, Benazir Bhutto’s party, the PPP, ended up winning. During her second term, with the support of the then president of Pakistan, Farooq Leghari (who was a member of the PPP), Benazir Bhutto helped to vastly improve Pakistan’s foreign relations with other countries, attract foreign investment as well as implement a variety of social and political programs, most of which were aimed at the development of women. She even helped restore freedom of the press and allowed student groups to meet openly once again. Benazir Bhutto also firmly believed that Pakistan should join the remaining countries of the world as a nuclear power, especially since India had tested their nuclear bomb back in 1974. 


Shortcomings & Decline

Throughout both her terms as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto had to deal with allegations of corruption against herself and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari. This ultimately led to her self-imposed exile that lasted for eight years. Benazir Bhutto continued to maintain that these charges were politically motivated and tried desperately to have the charges against her and her husband dropped, all to no avail. 

Once she returned, following an amnesty deal that was levied by General Pervez Musharraf, the then-president of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto immediately readied herself to make preparations for the campaign of the 2008 elections. However, having barely escaped with her life from a suicide attack in September 2007, Benazir Bhutto was placed under house arrest while President Musharraf declared a state of emergency, a move that was widely criticized by many opposition members. 


Assassination of Benazir Bhutto

While appearing for an election rally in Liaqat National Bagh in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. While a debate regarding Benazir’s actual cause of death (be it through either gunshot or blunt force head trauma) continues to occupy many a political discussion, her exact cause of death could not be ascertained. Dying at the age of just 54, Benazir Bhutto left behind a complicated legacy, one that was highlighted by some of her greatest achievements yet marred by allegations of corruption, nepotism and even supposed involvement in the shooting of her brother, Murtaza Bhutto. Nevertheless, her work towards empowering women in Pakistani society and introducing social justice that focused on the plight of the common man continues to remain at the forefront of many a person’s consciousness. 


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There is no doubt that Benazir Bhutto was a trailblazer in her own right, championing women’s rights alongside becoming the Muslim world’s first female prime minister. Yet, unfortunately, as with most political figures that have gained traction in Pakistan’s checkered political history, Benazir Bhutto’s record has been marred by accusations of corruption and favouritism. Regardless, her contributions towards Pakistani society will always be remembered. 


Most Common Repeated Questions:

Unlock the secrets to acing your O Level Pakistan Studies exams with a sneak peek into the most frequently asked questions that have graced the pages of O Level past papers!

  1. Describe the achievements of Benazir Bhutto’s foreign policy between 1988 and 1990. (4) [Oct/Nov 2023]
  2. Explain why Benazir Bhutto’s government was dismissed in 1990. (7) [Oct/Nov 2010, 2022]
  3. Explain why Benazir Bhutto’s government ended in 1996. (7) [Oct/Nov 2012, 2015, May/June 2020]
  4. To what extent did Benazir Bhutto’s privatization policy contribute to the government being replaced in 1996? Explain your answer. (14) [Oct/Nov 2020]
  5. What problems did Benazir Bhutto face as Prime Minister of Pakistan? (4) [May/June 2012]
  6. Were the challenges facing Benazir Bhutto in Sindh the main reason why she left office in 1990? Explain your answer. (14) [May/June 2018]



Q. How long was Benazir Bhutto Prime Minister?

Benazir Bhutto served as the Prime Minister of Pakistan for two non-consecutive terms. Her first term was from 1988 to 1990, and her second term was from 1993 to 1996.


Q. What did Benazir Bhutto accomplish as Prime Minister?

During her tenure as Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto implemented several initiatives and policies. Some of her accomplishments include improving Pakistan's foreign relations, attracting foreign investment, implementing social and political programs focused on women's development, restoring freedom of the press, and advocating for Pakistan to become a nuclear power.


Q. How many times did Benazir Bhutto become Prime Minister of Pakistan?

Benazir Bhutto became the Prime Minister of Pakistan twice. Her first term was from 1988 to 1990, and her second term was from 1993 to 1996.


Q. When was Benazir Bhutto elected?

Benazir Bhutto was elected as Prime Minister through democratic elections. She won the elections in 1988 and again in 1993. The specific dates for her election victories would be in November 1988 and October 1993, respectively.

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