San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Rise and Fall of
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
in Pakistan

The Election of 1977 and Its Aftermath

In 1977 Ali Bhutto had every reason to feel supremely confident. He was prime minister with a strong majority in the national assembly he was prime minister of. He was perceived as the charismatic leader with a strong following among the peasants and the poor of the cities. Internationally he was a major leader of international organizations and could well have become the leader of the Third World. He had carried out substantial nationalization of the Pakistani economy. He now wanted to change the constitution of Pakistan to allow a presidential form of government. To do this he needed a two-thirds majority in the legislature.

In January he called for new elections for the national and the provincial governments. The election for the national assembly was to take place on March 7th and the elections for the provincial assemblies were to take place three days later on March 10th.

His popularity was such that the political opposition saw no chance of opposing him except in the form of a coalition party. The name for the coalition party was the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). This included parties extending from the religious right to secular parties of the political center. The member parties of the PNA agreed to field only one candidate in each district election.

Bhutto's Pakistani Peoples Party (PPP) was expected to win the election. However in order for Bhutto to change the Constitution and create a presidential form of government he needed a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. So while there was little doubt that his party would win the election there had to be extra measures taken to achieve the two-thirds majority that he desired. Soon after legal steps were being taken to ensure an overwhelming victory in the election for the National Assembly.

The final day for filing as candidates for the March elections for the National Assembly was January 19, only 12 days after the election was announced. Under Pakistani law if only one candidate had filed for an office by the deadline date then that candidate would be declared elected unopposed. Bhutto had to be elected to the national assembly to be prime minister. In his district he was the only one who had filed for candidacy by the deadline. There were other candidates who wished to file that were detained by the police just before the deadline date. Therefore police power was being used to ensure an election outcome which would have been achieved by fair means anyway. This set the precident for later events. There were nine ministers from the PPP who were declared elected unopposed in the Sindh province as well. In fact, this was achieved because their opposition was kidnapped by the police just before the filing deadline date. Perhaps the PPP leadership sanctioned this ploy as a means to demoralize their opposition; to show them that opposition was futile.

In February Bhutto sent a note to the chief minister of the Punjab province telling him that he, Bhutto, was unhappy with the tempo of the election campaigning. Bhutto ordered him to get the campaign into high gear as soon as possible. At that time the election in Punjab was considered a tossup.

On March 7th 17 million Pakistanis of the 31 million eligible went to the polls and cast ballots. Bhutto's PPP won less than 60 percent of the popular votes yet it captured about 75 percent of the seats in the national assembly. The opposition PNA won 35 percent of the popular votes and only gained 17 percent of the seats in the national assembly. There were immediate calls for dismissing the results of the national election. The political opponents of Bhutto's VP P. called for a boycott of the provincial elections which were to be held on the tenth of March. As a result less than half of electorate returned to the polls to vote in the provincial elections. Leaders of the PNA called for strike on the Friday following the provincial elections. Most of his shops in the cities were closed for that strike. Bhutto had lost the support of the business class with his nationalization of small businesses in the past few years.

As noted above before the election the electoral chances for the PPP in Punjab were considered about an even 50-50. On March 7th when the election results were announced they showed Bhutto's PPP having won 105 legislative seats out of the total of 115. The official results showed 70 percent of the votes in Punjab going to Bhutto's PPP. Thus while the opposition PNA had won in the big cities of Karachi and Pehawar this was offset by the big win Punjab.

It was clear to everyone that a considerable amount of election fraud had occurred. Bhutto himself was actually depressed because it was so clear what had happened. In addition to seeking a two-thirds majority in the national assembly Bhutto also wanted to make a special effort to oppose the election of those candidates he felt would obstruct his future plans for Pakistan. Bhutto was also concerned about the need to maintain acceptance of his administration from the Army. There was concern about a growing prevalence of Islamic fundamentalism in the Army. This meant that the Army was becoming more sympathetic to his political opposition. Before the election Army officials reported finding posters in the Army Barracks at Multan calling for an Army revolution. Bhutto was confident that he had the allegiance of the Army because he felt secure in the leadership of Zia ul-Haq of the military. Bhutto had appointed Zia to his position. Zia in public and to Bhutto presented the appearance of subservience; in private he was distributing fundamentalist Islamic literature to the soldiers. So Zia's deferential demeanor was a sham. He smiled and bowed and seemed humble but he had other plans in mind.

Bhutto recognized that he needed to negotiate with his political opposition. But he was not willing to consider any alteration of the results of the national election. He said the March 7th election was a settled matter. On that basis his political opposition refused to enter into any negotiations with him.

Pakistan at that time was suffering several economic crises. The cotton crop, a major economic base of Pakistan, had failed for the year. As a result of Bhutto's past economic program of nationalization capital was leaving the country. Due to the shortage of tax revenue Bhutto's government had been printing money which led to severe inflation. Bhutto had created a 20,000 member Federal Security Force to function as his personal guard. He needed funds to pay the salaries for this force and the military. To make matters worse he had promised a 50 percent raise in pay thoughout the military. Bhutto intended to deal with his cash problem by securing a $300 million loan from Citibank of New York. In order to obtain this loan he needed a guarantee by someone who was solvent. He thought the Shah of Iran would provide the guarantee. He wrote to the Shah on March 13 just one week after the national election to obtain that guarantee. The Shah replied that his government ministry had realized that borrower would be Bhutto himself rather than the government of Pakistan and that they needed three or four weeks to consider the matter of the guarantee under those circumstances. This meant in effect that Bhutto would not get his guarantee and therefore he would not get the Citibank loan.

Meanwhile the DMA opposition was calling for Bhutto's resignation and new national elections to be held administered by the Army and the judiciary. A major protest march was held in Karachi and was dispersed by the police using tear gas. Bhutto government responded by having six of the top leaders of the PNA arrested for creating lawlessness. The next day the protest demonstrations could not be controlled by the police and the Army was called in to restore law and order. A curfew was imposed. Demonstrations against Bhutto were held in the major cities of Punjab.

The National Assembly met in Islamabad on March 28th. Only the PPP members showed up. In his address to the National Assembly Bhutto tried to placate the opposition by promising that there would be no further nationalizations. He offered to enter into a dialogue with the opposition thinking that it would settle for increased representation in the national assembly. He also charged that the opposition was being used by the great powers.

Bhutto had declared a national emergency and created a set of administrative measures called Defense of Pakistan Rules. Under these rules he had all of the opposition leaders arrested. He called for his political opponents to negotiate a solution and he would release them from prison and rescind the Defense of Pakistan Rules.

The opposition leaders did not trust Bhutto and the demonstrations continued. On April 9 there was a demonstrations in Lahore and the police opened fire with live ammunition instead of tear gas. The death toll was variously estimated from 8 to 37. In Karachi five more demonstrators were killed by the police. Elsewhere scores of prominent opposition leaders were arrested. Further strikes were called for and observed throughout the country. Local organizations began calling for an investigation of some of the actions of the Bhutto regime.

Bhutto on the other hand announced that he would not hesitate to do call out the Army to restore law and order. In response to this two former military leaders who were then ambassadors submitted their resignations.

Bhutto felt confident that with the allegiance of the Army under Zia he could control the situation. He however took steps to placate the Islamic fundamentalists. He announced that within six months his government would prohibit all alcohol, gambling, bars, and movie theaters. He would bring Pakistan's laws in conformity with the Koran. Bhutto himself was known to have a drinking problem, to engage in dancing and was sanctioning the building gambling casinos within Pakistan.

On April 28 Bhutto made a national broadcast calling for public calm and the settlement of issues by negotiation. Later that day he met with the ambassador from Saudi Arabia and sought Saudi Arabian aid in resolving Pakistan's difficulties. He charged that the U.S. CIA was guiding the opposition because he had refused to give up his goal of acquiring nuclear weapons technology.

Bhutto also had the notion that the Soviet Union was also behind that his problems. Bhutto believed the Soviet Union was financially supporting the opposition because if the opposition came to power they would dismember Pakistan. The Soviet Union would then gain influence and an Indian Ocean port in an independent Baluchistan. Bhutto had no problem in seeing the United States, the Soviet Union, and India as being behind his problems.

In May Bhutto announced that henceforth Friday would be the day of rest instead of Sunday. He intended this as a further placation of the Islamic fundamentalists. Bhutto also announced that there would be a national referendum on his continuance in office. He knew that very likely there would be an opposition boycott of this referendum and he would therefore get overwhelming support. He refused to accept the possibility of a new election for the national assembly.

(To be continued.)

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