KARACHI, Pakistan—The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's most charismatic and popular political figure, is a destabilizing blow for a country already threatened by growing Islamic extremism and separatist tensions.
Bhutto's return in October from eight years of self-imposed exile provided a possible course to restore democratic governance to her tumultuous country. The Bush administration had been working behind the scenes to help negotiate a power-sharing accord with President Pervez Musharraf, the former general who has run the country under military rule since 1999. Such an accord, coupled with relatively fair elections, was envisioned as a crucial step to counter the growing influence of Islamic radicals in a country that has nuclear weapons and is a key ally in the fight against al Qaeda.
It is now doubtful that parliamentary elections will take place as scheduled on January 8. The expectation had been that a strong showing by Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party would have given her a third term as prime minister, although there was growing concern that the voting would be rigged to ensure that Musharraf remains in control through a seemingly democratic process.
In an address to the nation today, Musharraf—himself the target of several suspected assassination attempts attributed to al Qaeda—blamed terrorists for her murder. But there are other possibilities. Some Pakistanis, for instance, were quick to suspect the powerful military Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has had close ties to Islamists and has been used by past Pakistani leaders to suppress political opposition. Also, there are tribal warlords and powerful figures in and out of the military who stood to lose power and money if Bhutto had become prime minister.
With Bhutto's death, Pakistan's political scene has lost a charismatic, pro-Western figure that had an enormous following, particularly in her native Sindh province. "This is a major setback for the liberal and democratic forces," says Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based political and defense analyst. "The PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) is a major liberal force in Pakistan, which has been grappling with growing militancy for the last few years. Now, the survival of this liberal party has come into question, which is bad news for moderate forces."
It is unclear who, if anyone, is in a position to take over leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Bhutto assumed the role after her father, popular Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in 1979 following a military coup led by Gen. Zia ul-Haq. Sehgal thinks it is unlikely that Bhutto's son or daughters will step in because they don't have her standing and they have not been political figures. The Bhutto bloodline is also shared by her niece and a nephew, the children of her father's brother Murtaza Bhutto, a political figure who was killed in a clash with police in 1996. Niece Fatima Bhutto might have led the party, Sehgal says, but had a falling-out with Bhutto years ago. "I don't think she will be accepted by Bhutto's followers," he added.
"This is not a tragedy. This is a supertragedy which will continue to haunt Pakistan's politics for a long time" as has her father's hanging, says Talat Hussein, an Islamabad-based senior political analyst and news director at Aaj (Today) TV.
While Bhutto had a national following, her base of support was in her native Sindh province, a region that has lagged economically and in terms of political power behind eastern Punjab province, which is considered the traditional power base of Pakistan. Her death reinforced the claims by an emerging separatist movement there, with some protestors shouting slogans calling for "freedom from Pakistan."
"This is a very dangerous trend," says Abdul Hameed Shaikh, a local journalist from Larkana, Bhutto's hometown. "People are openly talking about independence from Pakistan. How ironic this is that the people of Sindh province who had played a pivotal role in [the] creation of Pakistan are now talking about parting their ways with Pakistan."
Shaikh reported violent demonstrations in Larkana, some 250 miles from Karachi, a shock for an area that hasn't seen the kind of turmoil plaguing Pakistan's western regions near the Afghan border. "The whole city is burning like other parts of the province," he says. "Before this incident, Sindh had been relatively calm as compared to North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and Balochistan, where anti-Pakistan and anti-Army sentiments are running high. But after this incident, I am afraid the situation will be very much like NWFP, and Balochistan, where the Army is so far unable to control the situation," Shaikh said.
The nationalist movement in Sindh, thought to be supported by India, surged after the hanging of Bhutto's father and continued throughout the eleven years of Zia's military dictatorship from 1977 to 1988, a time when Zia was a close U.S. ally in arming Islamic radicals against Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan. The separatist movement was almost extinguished after the democracy was restored, and Benazir Bhutto became the country's prime minister in 1988.
In interviews and speeches, Bhutto said she was aware of the risks of returning to Pakistan but added that she felt a responsibility to try to help restore democracy and provide better governance for Pakistan. She narrowly escaped a suicide bomber's attack on Oct. 18, 2007, when she faced countless thousands of supporters in Karachi on her return from a self-imposed exile. Some 150 people were killed and 500 injured in that attack. She complained afterwards that Pakistani authorities had not provided adequate security.
"I have been writing this since October last that if Benazir Bhutto had died, nobody could stop the separation of Sindh from Pakistan," says Abbas Athar, a senior columnist with the Daily Express, one of Pakistan's most widely circulated newspapers. "It will further foment the anti-Punjab sentiments in Sindh."
Now complicating matters is the fact that she was killed while on a campaign stop in the Punjab province city of Rawalpindi, which adjoins the capital of Islamabad. Further, her main political rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who also recently returned from exile to rally supporters in the parliamentary elections, comes from Punjab. Sharif, who was ousted in Musharraf's 1999 coup, said his party now will boycott the elections.
The head of the six-party Islamic religious alliance in Parliament, Jammat-e-Islami Chief Qazi Hussain Ahmad, called for a nationwide day of mourning on Friday. "This is a highly condemnable act of terrorism perpetrated by the enemies of Islam and Pakistan," he said. "This is the act of those elements, who do not want peace and tranquility in the country."
He added that Bhutto's assassination is an attempt to plunge the country into a chaos. "This is a testing time for the entire nation. This is not the murder of Ms. Bhutto, but this is murder of democracy."