After returning from exile last April, Opposition Leader Benazir Bhutto, 33, basked in the welcoming cheers of millions of her fellow Pakistanis. Buoyed by her reception, she demanded that the government of President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq and Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo call new legislative elections this year. The alternative, she warned, would be an uprising by her followers and the overthrow of the government.
It did not work out quite that way. Just six months after her triumphant return, Bhutto last week announced that she was dropping her campaign for immediate elections. Eventually, she still hopes to oust Zia, the general who overthrew her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in a 1977 coup and whose government executed him two years later.
Bhutto explained her latest move as an attempt to avoid the "bloodshed and chaos [that might] lead to a takeover by another general." Opponents were quick to blame it all on Bhutto herself. A strong-willed aristocrat who was educated at Harvard and Oxford, she has had difficulty in unifying her father's Pakistan People's Party. She is wary of its older leaders, and has replaced many of them with younger politicians. Charges Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, 55, who was forced out of his party post and later formed an opposition group of his own: "Bhutto's retreat is a setback to the democratic forces, and she is the only person responsible."
Bhutto has thus far failed to transform her personal popularity into political power. When she and other People's Party leaders were arrested in August during a government crackdown, the party called for a nationwide protest. Riots followed in Karachi and rural Sind province, the Bhutto family's traditional power base, but there were no large-scale demonstrations elsewhere. Some opposition leaders criticized Bhutto, who was kept in jail for 25 days, for forcing a premature confrontation. Leftists in her own party complained that she had refused to engage in anti-American rhetoric or to blame the U.S. for her father's execution.
Most important, thousands of ordinary Pakistanis, who had cheered her arrival last spring, remained silent after her arrest, apparently out of apathy. She is charismatic enough to draw crowds but not strong enough to summon her countrymen to the barricades. This fact was not lost on Zia, who has never been particularly popular but has given the country a decade of relative stability.
After Bhutto's release from prison last month, her lieutenants fell to wrangling over why the wave of protest against her arrest had never materialized. Intraparty squabbles broke out in Sind province and in more populous Punjab. Particularly distressing was the resignation of the party's president in Sind, Makhdoom Khaliq Uzzaman, who insisted on quitting even though Bhutto begged him to stay on.
The result of the opposition infighting is that Zia will probably not feel obliged to call elections until 1990, when the term of the present Parliament expires. Though she may still rule Pakistan someday, Benazir Bhutto has learned that for a civilian politician in her fractious country, there is no shortcut to power.