KARACHI, Pakistan – Thousands of supporters of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto gathered in Pakistan’s biggest city Thursday to welcome her home from eight years of exile to the center stage of the country’s volatile politics.
Brushing off fears of attack by Islamic militants, she vowed Wednesday to restore democracy and fight religious extremism. But there is public skepticism she can turn the bold rhetoric into reality.
“My return heralds for the people of Pakistan the turn of the wheel from dictatorship to democracy, from exploitation to empowerment, from violence to peace,” Bhutto told reporters in Dubai ahead of the flight home.
Bhutto’s arrival was expected to draw 100,000 or more people to the streets of this southern city.
The path for her return was paved by negotiations with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and has promised to give up command of the army if he secures a new term as president. The talks yielded an amnesty covering the corruption cases that led Bhutto to leave Pakistan, and could see the archrivals team up in a U.S.-friendly alliance to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Bhutto, 54, whose two elected governments between 1988 and 1996 were toppled amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement, is vying for a third term if her Pakistan People’s Party can win parliamentary elections in January.
In Karachi, where loyalists created a carnival atmosphere, many people were dubious about her promises.
“Let’s see what she can do for us,” said Mohammed Asif, a 27-year-old student in the district of Lyari, a Bhutto party stronghold. “She’s been prime minister twice but she’s done nothing for Lyari.”
Some 2,500 paramilitary officers deployed around the airport Wednesday, and 10,000 more were on standby. Some 3,500 police, including seven bomb-clearing squads, and 5,000 party volunteers guarded Bhutto’s route.