What now? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 02, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 02, 2008

What now?

Benazir Bhutto, the outstanding icon of Pakistan's struggle for democracy is gone. For those who only saw her as a distant political figure, her human dimension clearly did not matter. That applies to those who vilified her throughout her life, those who failed to protect her, and those who actually killed her. But for everyone whose life she touched, her humanity transcended the politics.
I was among those who got to know Benazir Bhutto, the person -- a daughter scarred by the assassination of her father, a sister injured by the killing of her brothers, a wife hurt by the disparagement and imprisonment without conviction of her husband, and a mother who was robbed of the opportunity to see her children grown into adulthood. With all the verbal and physical abuse hurled at her, she remained amazingly loving and lovable.
Bhutto's loss is a personal loss to me, and millions of others who admired her. Her assassination also creates serious challenges for the integrity and future of Pakistan.
Beginning with Ziaul Haq's decision to execute Pakistan's first popularly elected leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan has witnessed a fundamental struggle between the country's establishment, which rules with military backing, and populist forces led by the Bhutto family. Benazir Bhutto's assassination is the latest twist in that conflict.
Like all great people, and political dynasties, the Bhuttos generate a lot of passion, both for and against. In the days to come we will read and hear many facts, factoids and falsehoods about the strengths, weaknesses and paradoxes of Benazir Bhutto. To me these are merely the subtext. The headline is that the Pakistani establishment's nemesis has been removed from the scene, ostensibly by terrorists who have flourished in establishment-dominated Pakistan.
Benazir Bhutto was demonised by the civil-military oligarchy that has virtually run Pakistan since 1958, the year of Pakistan's first military coup. But she retained a hard core of popular support, and her social-democratic Pakistan People's Party is widely regarded as Pakistan's largest political party.
Pakistan's civilian leaders of recent years (including Benazir Bhutto) get blamed for many things that are essentially the result of the establishment's obsessions -- with India, about Afghanistan, and relations with the United States.
Bhutto's assassination could be a setback to populist-democratic forces. But it also has the potential to mobilise strong backlash against the militarist and overly centralised paradigm of the Pakistani state.
Years of dictatorship and sponsorship of Islamist extremism have made this nuclear-armed Muslim nation of 160 million people a safe haven for terrorists threaten the world. Bhutto had the courage and vision to challenge both terrorism and the authoritarian culture that nurtured it. Her assassination has already exacerbated Pakistan's instability and uncertainty.
Riots have erupted in several parts of the country as grief has fanned anger against a government that is deeply unpopular. Like her father before her, she was a leader from Sindh with national appeal. That she met a tragic end without much protection or comfort from the country's ruling elite heightens the isolation of Sindhis and Balochis.
Barely two years ago, a missile attack by security forces killed octogenarian Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti. The circumstances of Bhutto's death -- assassination by a terrorist -- may be different, but the net result is the same: systematic elimination of nationally recognised anti-establishment political leaders with strong constituencies.
The tragedy of December 27 may have been the work of a terrorist but, for Bhutto's supporters, the government is not without blame. Musharraf refused to accept Bhutto's requests for an investigation in the earlier attempt on her life on October 18, assisted by the FBI or Scotland Yard, both of which have greater competence in analysing forensic evidence than Pakistan's notoriously corrupt and incompetent law enforcement.
Television images soon after Bhutto's assassination showed fire engines hosing down the crime scene, in what can only be considered a calculated washing away of forensic evidence. The cynicism on the part of the Pakistani authorities is now causing most of Bhutto's supporters to vent anger against the Musharraf regime for her tragic death.
Now that the PPP and PML-N have agreed to participate in the polls, parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8 should not be delayed. The plans for poll rigging already in place for the benefit of the Kings Party, PML-Q, should be shelved to ensure that a rigged poll does not become the instigator of a new round of street violence.
Musharraf has ruled alone for long enough. He should not put the country's stability and prosperity in jeopardy by continuing with the political juggling that has kept him strong so far while making Pakistan weak.
Husain Haqqani, a professor at Boston University, is Co-Chair of the Hudson Institute's Project on Islam and Democracy. He is the author of the Carnegie Endowment book 'Pakistan Between Mosque and Military,' and served as an adviser to Ms Bhutto.

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