Published on December 29, 2007
The assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on Thursday has dealt a devastating blow to the democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people and undermined the authority of beleaguered President Pervez Musharraf, who is struggling hard to cling on to power. Taleban/al-Qaeda Islamic militants were suspected of killing Bhutto and some 20 other people in a hail of gunfire followed by the detonation of a bomb by a suicidal assassin at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi. The same murderous extremists were also believed to have perpetrated a previous unsuccessful attempt on her life that killed more than 130 people in Karachi.
Bhutto, who headed the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which enjoys broad popular support, was widely expected to become the prime minister following the January 8 elections. Under a power-sharing agreement with Musharraf, she was granted an amnesty, which exonerated her of corruption charges pertaining to her previous stint as PM, and allowed her to compete in the elections.
Although both Bhutto and Musharraf could hardly be described as champions of democracy given the former's chequered past as a political leader and the latter's desperate attempt to prolong his authoritarian rule, the two still offered Pakistan a glimmer of hope for a peaceful transition toward democracy.
With Bhutto gone, Musharraf will be blamed for failure by his government to provide adequate security - if not accused of being complicit in the assassination. Already the Pakistani army has been put on alert as Bhutto's supporters rioted in Pakistan's major cities. There was a lull in the storm of emotions as Bhutto was laid to rest in her ancestral home in Larkana in southern Pakistan. It remains to be seen if there will be a further backlash against Musharraf by angry Bhutto supporters and other pro-democracy groups.
Musharraf, who still enjoys support from the army, has pleaded for calm while vowing to bring to justice the perpetrators. But a quick conclusion to the investigation into the attack is very much in doubt. After all, Pakistan has been fighting a domestic war on terror in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan for several years with little to show for it. If the growing number of suicide attacks against civilian targets in Pakistan's major cities in recent months is any indication, winning the war on terror is far from assured.
The president has announced that the election will take place on January 8 as scheduled. Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister and a political rival of Musharraf, announced yesterday that his Pakistan Muslim League would boycott the election.
Sharif repeated his call for Musharraf to step down, saying a free and fair election was not possible under his rule. The demand for Musharraf to exit politics is echoed by the pro-democracy movement, the middle class and members of the civil society. The PPP, which has been thrown into disarray after the death of its charismatic leader, has not made known its decision on who will succeed Bhutto as leader or whether it will support Sharif's call to not participate in the January 8 vote.
Obviously there is much to be said for holding the election as scheduled on January 8 despite the act of terror and the destabilising effect it will have. This would show Islamic extremists that the Pakistani people's desire for democracy cannot be extinguished by either terrorism or military dictatorship.
The participation of all the political parties in the poll will offer the best chance for resolution of the ongoing deadlock between the pro-democracy movement and Musharraf'. It may also offer a desperately needed way for him to make a graceful exit from politics. Only if all parties of all ideological stripes agree to participate in the election - to be monitored by international observers - can the poll result be acceptable to all.
The next step will be the formation of a government of national unity. Its primary purpose will be to effectively engage Musharraf in negotiation for the transformation of Pakistan from military dictatorship to democracy, and to oversee the military's suppression of Islamic extremists. The twin scourges of military dictatorship and Islamic extremists must be dealt with at one go if Pakistan is to have a chance of becoming a prosperous democratic nation.