- Second Term as Leader of the Opposition, 1996–99
Benazir Bhutto left for Dubai soon afterwards 1997 parliamentary elections, taking her three children with her, while her husband was set for trial.
Bhutto acted as Leader of the Opposition despite living in Dubai, and worked to enhance her public image while supporting public reforms. In 1998, soon after India’s Pokhran-II nuclear tests, Bhutto publicly called for Pakistan to begin its own nuclear testing programme, rallying and pressuring Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to make this decision. Bhutto learned from sources close to Sharif that he was reluctant to carry out nuclear testing. Finally, after the public aggressiveness towards carrying out nuclear testing, Nawaz authorised and ordered the scientists from PAEC and KRL to perform the tests.
However, 1999 would brought dramatic changes for Bhutto as well as the entire country. Bhutto criticized Sharif for violating the Armed Forces’s code of conduct when he illegally appointed General Pervez Musharraf as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. Nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan also criticised the Prime Minister. In early 1999 Sharif enjoyed widespread popularity as he tried to make peace with India. However, all this changed when Pakistan became enmeshed with an unpopular and undeclared war with India. Known as the Kargil war, the conflict brought international embarrassment upon Pakistan, and the prime minister’s prestige and public image were destroyed in a matter of two months. Bhutto criticised the prime minister, and called the Kargil War, “Pakistan’s greatest blunder”.
Ali Kuli Khan, Director-General of ISI at that time, also publicly criticised the prime minister and labelled the fighting “a disaster bigger than East Pakistan”. Religious and liberal forces joined Bhutto in condemning Sharif for the conflict, and she made a tremendous effort to destroy his prestige and credibility, says historian William Dalrymple. Then in August 1999, an event completely shattered the remains of Sharif’s image and support. Two Indian Air Force MiG-21 fighters shot down a Pakistani Navy reconnaissance plane, killing 16 naval officers. Bhutto criticised Sharif for having failed to gather any support from the navy. The Armed Forces began to criticise the prime minister for causing the military disasters. Bhutto’s approval ratings were favourable and the Armed Forces chiefs remained sympathetic towards Bhutto as she continued to criticise the now-unpopular Sharif.
Bhutto was highly confident that her party would secure an overwhelming victory in the coming Senate elections in 1999, due to the prime minister’s widening unpopularity. Controversially, when the Pakistani armed forced initiated a coup d’état, Bhutto neither criticised nor issued any comment, remaining silent on supporting General Musharraf, as Dalrymple notes. She continued to support Musharraf’s coordinated arrests of the supporters and staff of Sharif. Musharraf destroyed Sharif’s political presence in Sindh and Kashmir provinces. Many political offices in Sharif’s constituency or district were forcibly closed and many sympathisers were jailed. In 2002, Bhutto and the MQM made a side-line deal with Musharraf that allows both to continue underground political activities in Sindh and Kashmir, and to fill the gap after Musharraf had destroyed Sharif’s presence in the both provinces. The effects of the arrests was seen clearly in the 2008 parliamentary elections, when Nawaz Sharif failed to secure support back in those two provinces.