- Early 2000s in Exile
Once a populist, by the end of the 1990s, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had become widely unpopular, and following the military coup, Sharif’s credibility, image and career were destroyed by Musharraf who formed the PML-Q in order to banish the former prime minister’s party support across the country. The PML-Q consisted of those who were initially part of Sharif’s party but then switched to Musharraf to avoid persecution and jail. Year 2000 brought positive change for Bhutto, who became widely unpopular in Pakistan in 1996.
In the 2000s, following the declassification of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission papers and other secret documents from the 1970s, Bhutto’s support in Pakistan began to grow. Her image became more positive and the PPP seemed likely to return to government, perhaps as soon the 2002 elections. Amid fears of Bhutto’s return, a threatened Musharraf released from imprisonment many members of the liberal-secular force MQM who had held been as political prisoners. Musharraf saw MQM as a vital political weapon to hold back the PPP. But MQM support was limited to Karachi at the time, and very lacking in the urban areas of Sindh, which remained a critical electoral threat for Musharraf. Therefore, in 2002 President Musharraf amended Pakistan’s constitution to ban prime ministers from serving more than two terms. This disqualified Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif from holding the office again and was widely considered to attack them directly.
While she lived in Dubai Bhutto cared for her three children and her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. She also travelled to give lectures in the U.S. and kept in touch with PPP supporters. She and the children were reunited with her husband in December 2004 after more than five years.
At the request of Pakistan, Interpol issued a request in 2006 for the arrest of Bhutto and her husband on corruption charges. The Bhuttos questioned the legality of the requests in a letter to Interpol. On 27 January 2007, she was invited by the United States to speak to President George W. Bush and Congressional and State Department officials. Bhutto appeared as a panellist on the BBC TV programme Question Time in the United Kingdom in March 2007. She also appeared on the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight on several occasions. She rebuked comments made by Muhammad Ijaz-ul-Haq in May 2007 regarding the knighthood of Salman Rushdie, noting that he was calling for the assassination of foreign citizens.
In mid-2007, Bhutto declared her intention to return to Pakistan by the end of the year. But Musharraf said he would not allow her to enter the country before general election, scheduled for late 2007 or early 2008. Still, speculation circulated that she might have been offered the office of Prime Minister again. At the same time, the US appeared to be pushing for a deal in which Musharraf would remain president, but step down as head of the military, and either Bhutto or one of her nominees became prime minister.
On 11 July 2007, in an article about the possible aftermath of the Red Mosque incident, the Associated Press quoted Bhutto saying “I’m glad there was no cease-fire with the militants in the mosque because ceasefires simply embolden the militants.”
This assessment was received with dismay in Pakistan, as reportedly hundreds of young students had burned to death. The remains were untraceable and cases were being heard in the Pakistani supreme court, as a missing persons issue. This and subsequent support for Musharraf led Elder Bhutto’s comrades like Khar to criticise her publicly. Bhutto however advised Musharraf in an early phase of the latter’s quarrel with the Chief Justice, to restore him. Her PPP did not capitalise on its influential CEC statesman, Aitzaz Ahsan, the chief Barrister for the Chief Justice, in successful restoration. Rather, he was seen as a rival of Bhutto, and isolated on that issue with PPP.