Why I'm Returning To Pakistan

09/01/2007 08:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I was looking forward to a quiet family holiday in New York this summer with my three children, our dog Maxmillian and my husband, who is being treated for a heart condition that developed while he was a political prisoner in Pakistan from 1996 to 2004. I thought we would go to the theatre and spend time walking in Central Park, as well meeting up with friends for nice, long chatty dinners. But in this surprisingly momentous summer of 2007, our quiet family vacation disappeared as we found ourselves caught up in the media attention on my country Pakistan, and its fast changing political situation.

It is clear to those following events in South Asia that Pakistan is truly at a turning point. Almost a decade of military dictatorship has devastated the basic infrastructure of democracy. Political parties have been assaulted, political leaders arrested, and the judicial system manipulated to force party leaders into exile. NGOs have been under constant attack, especially those that deal with human rights, democratic values and women's rights. The press has been intimidated, with some reporters -- even those that work for papers like the New York Times -- arrested, beaten or made to disappear. Student and labor unions have not been allowed to function. The electoral institutions of the nation have been manipulated by an Election Commission that could not stop rigging and fraud. And in the battle against terrorism, we look on with dismay as the government of Pakistan ceded sections of our nation that previously had been governed by the rule of law to Taliban sympathizers and to Al Qaeda, making Pakistan the Petri dish of the international terrorist movement.

But the most dangerous manifestation of this retreat from democracy has been a growing sense of hopelessness of the people of Pakistan, and a total disillusionment with the political system's ability to address their daily problems. The social sector has festered -- underfinanced and relegated to the back burner of national policy. All the indicators of quality of life have spiraled down, from employment to education to housing to health care. And as people's sense of disillusionment has grown, there has been a corresponding growth in the spread of religious and political extremism. The failure of the regime has made our citizens open to extra-governmental experimentation with fanaticism. This has clearly been manifest in the spread of politicized madrassas, schools in which the curriculum incorporates xenophobia, bigotry and often para-military terrorist training. But poor parents who cannot feed or clothe their children entrust them to these kinds of schools, so their children may be fed and housed.

The growth of the madrassas is but one important signal that extremism has been making inroads against moderation amongst the Pakistani polity. I have always believed that the battle between extremism and moderation is the underlying battle for the very soul of Pakistan. Yet moderation can prevail against the extremists only if democracy flourishes and the social sector improves the quality of life of the people. In 2007, I sensed that the decade of dictatorship was threatening to undermine the moderate majority of Pakistan, those people committed to pluralism, to education, to technology -- in other words, those committed to Pakistan taking its place among the community of civilized nations as a leader in the 21st century. Under democracy, the extremists had been marginalized in the past, never receiving more than 11% of the vote in an election. But under dictatorship, Pakistan was edging toward extremism, chaos, and sliding towards a failed state.

My party [the Pakistan Peoples Party] was engaged in a dialogue with the regime of General Musharraf, but discussions didn't move the regime concretely toward democratic reform. In the summer of 2007, after the reinstatement of the Chief Justice of Pakistan and the birth of judicial activism, the dialogue with General Musharraf took a more substantive turn. It seemed now that the country had an opportunity to peacefully transition to democracy, which is critical for the other war -- the war of moderation against extremism -- to succeed. I had a choice. Engage in dialogue, or turn toward the streets. I knew that street protests against the Musharraf dictatorship could lead to the deaths of hundreds. I thought about the choice before me very carefully. I chose dialogue; I chose negotiation; I chose to find a common ground that would unite all the moderate elements of Pakistan for a peaceful transfer to a workable political system that was responsive to the needs of the 160 million people of Pakistan whose empowerment is critical to the success of both governing and the fight against terrorism.

I know that some in Pakistan, including those in political parties were so embittered with the military regime that they wanted the door of dialogue shut. But from the very beginning my goal was and remains to guarantee a free and open electoral process that would provide for a legitimate Parliament and provincial assemblies that would then select, in a constitutional process, a civilian President who understands that in a parliamentary democracy, the parliament is supreme. I wasn't negotiating for a guaranteed outcome, I was negotiating for a guaranteed process. That was the goal at the beginning. That is the goal now. Are we making progress towards that goal? I still am unable to say. There are many elements, in particular those sympathisers in the ruling Party and Government who enabled the extremists and militants to expand their influence in my country who are fearful of the return of the PPP and a rollback of the terrorist forces that have gained strength since my government was overthrown in 1996. They want to scuttle a process that could see the emergence of a moderate Pakistan. So it has been a roller coaster ride. Some times the dialogue moves forward with General Musharaf . But then he consults his colleagues in the ruling alliance and retracts from confidence building measures promised for a fair electoral process.

As the presidential and parliamentary elections approach, I am making plans with my supporters to return to Pakistan. I know that it is critical for Pakistan to return to a democratic way of life so that the people's problems can be addressed. When people are partners with government, they stand up to defend their communities against terrorists, criminals and negative forces.

My stay in New York wasn't exactly the family vacation I had planned, but it was a critical period of weeks that could very well determine the future of Pakistan. I long ago realized that my personal life was to be subjugated to my political responsibilities. When my democratically elected father, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was arrested in 1977 and subsequently murdered, the mantle of leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party, our nation's largest, nationwide grassroots political structure, was suddenly thrust upon me. It was not the life I planned, but it is the life I have. My husband and children accept and understand that my political responsibilities to the people of Pakistan come first, as painful as that personally is to all of us. I would like to be planning my son's move to his first year at college later this month, but instead I am planning my return to Pakistan and my party's parliamentary election campaign.

I didn't choose this life. It chose me.