Abida Hussain has a lot of explaining to do as she campaigns for a parliamentary seat in Pakistan. The 61-year-old, two-time member of the National Assembly is a veteran of the country's rough-and-tumble politics: she has switched political parties four times. That has helped earn her the derogatory epithet lota, the round-bottomed (and thus wobbly) pitchers used in Pakistani bathrooms. But this time around, Hussain has a powerful ally: the ghost of Benazir Bhutto, the popular former Prime Minister who was assassinated on December 27.
For the first time in 30 years, Hussain is campaigning again under the banner of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), founded by Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It is an interesting turn: in the mid-1990s, Hussain was the Ambassador to the United States for then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the sworn enemy of the Bhutto dynasty. As she sits on a hastily constructed outdoor platform covered in tattered oriental rugs, in the village of Lalian, she addresses a small crowd of turbaned and prayer-capped men. They are local farmers, lured by the promise of tea, snacks and the entertainment that election rallies bring to the destitute villages of southern Punjab.
Hussain explains that she had joined the PPP decades ago as a committed believer in the party's manifesto of Bread, Clothing and Shelter for all, but was driven away by internal politicking. She glosses over the time she spent serving the party of General Zia ul Haq, the military leader who overthrew Bhutto's father in 1977, then hanged him two years later. Her time serving under Bhutto's arch-nemesis Sharif is also barely mentioned, nor is her failed 2002 campaign in which she ran on President Pervez Musharraf's party ticket. All her party peregrinations were forgiven in 2003, she says, when Benazir Bhutto called her back into the fold, inviting her to London where she ran the party from exile. "Benazir personally asked me to return," Hussain told the crowd. Her personal herald, a short man in thick glasses with a powerful voice shouted, "Long live Bhutto!" "Long live Abida!" the crowd roared back.
Six weeks after the assassination of Bhutto, that mission has become a sacred trust, and for candidates such as Hussain campaigning on the PPP ticket, a potent political boon. Analysts, diplomats and politicians are expecting a large PPP sympathy vote on February 18, when Pakistanis go to the polls in an election that very well could lead to the ouster of President Pervez Musharraf, if the opposition wins a majority in parliament. "It's all about Benazir now," says Hussain. "After the 27th, I am much less relevant. It sounds terrible, but the death of Benazir has increased our chances."
Candidates these days need whatever help they can get. Many, like Hussain, have received letters from the interior ministry claiming they are on terrorists' hit lists, and should avoid large rallies. The threats may be fabricated, says Hussain, an attempt to keep opposition candidates and their anti-Musharraf platform out of sight, but still, "you can never be too sure." In years past Hussain would have called massive rallies in town centers; these days she reaches out through small gatherings in private courtyards, repeating her speeches as many as five times a day. Between rallies she drives in a convoy of SUVs, flanked by security guards brandishing guns decorated with stickers of her face. A pickup with speakers affixed to the roof blasts a recording of Bhutto's last speech, the one she gave at an election rally just minutes before she was killed.
This Thursday will mark 40 days since the death of Bhutto, and the end of the traditional Islamic mourning period. Asif Zardari, Bhutto's husband and appointed co-chair of the party, will launch the national campaign a day later. But due to restrictions on large gatherings, historically the PPP's most fertile vote earner, the onus falls on candidates such as Hussain to keep Bhutto relevant. Hussain's speeches are filled with fiery condemnations of Musharraf, whom she blames for Bhutto's death, despite the fact that both the government and the CIA have fingered al-Qaeda affiliated militants. "You can take revenge," she shouts to the third gathering of the day. "Avenge Benazir Bhutto's death, and all dictatorships in our history, by voting for me, by voting for PPP." This time the crowd needs no prompting. "Long live the martyred Bhutto!" they shout. "Down with Musharraf!"
Hussain has little to offer in the way of a platform. The rise of suicide bombers, and a flour, gas and electricity shortage that is reaching crisis proportions feature in all her speeches, but she gives no concrete solutions other than the ouster of Musharraf, whom she refers to as a "tinpot dictator" and other unflattering epithets that are unpublishable in Pakistan because of the government's media crackdown.
But in Pakistan, few candidates rely on platforms. The Pakistani political system is based on an elected official's ability to deliver locally. "You will never see a candidate offer a five-point plan to solve the flour crisis because it's not really what the voter cares about," says a Western official, who calls politicking in Pakistan "pork-barrel politics to the nth degree." The whole system is built around largesse, favors and influence peddling, he says. Instead, politicians prefer to buy flour themselves and distribute it amongst the poor a better way to earn personal loyalty and guarantee votes the next time around.
The PPP is one of the few parties striving to cement real grassroots political support that is loyal to the party rather than the candidate. It is having limited success. Analysts estimate that only one-third of PPP votes in the last election were for the party, which is why candidates such as Hussain can switch parties yet maintain their vote bank. This year, the death of Bhutto may be the catalyst that turns hundreds of local elections into a real national movement. In Lalian (which had a PPP representative who then switched over to Musharraf), it already seems to be working. "The politicians come here and promise us everything," says Abdul Khaliq, a teacher at Hussain's last rally for the day. "But the day after the elections they disappear." Khaliq says he has given up on voting for individual candidates. He will choose Hussain not because of what she has promised, but because she represents Bhutto. "Benazir is the dream, and Abida will bring us there."