Benazir Bhutto's Death Leaves a Political Void in Pakistan

A hoped-for democratic transition now is in jeopardy

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Hundreds of thousands of mourning Pakistanis, many wailing with grief, paid their last respects.

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As Pakistani opposition figure Benazir Bhutto was buried Friday in her family's ancestral graveyard, a troubled nation was forced to contemplate an alarming reality—there is simply no obvious candidate to fill the gaping hole left by her assassination.

Bhutto, a two-time prime minister and perhaps Pakistan's most popular political figure, maintained an exclusive grip on the reins of the Pakistan People's Party, the country's largest political party, for more than 25 years. In part because nobody could challenge her position, Bhutto never groomed any kind of successor.

Analysts warn that the resulting political vacuum could, perhaps, be filled in part by more extremist influences. They point to the 2002 general elections, when the two most popular leaders, Bhutto and another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, were in exile, and a six-party religious alliance captured an unusually high number of votes.

"Nobody can fill this gap, not even Mr. Sharif, because he represents the moderate right-wing voters, while Ms. Bhutto was the representative of liberal and left-wing forces in the country," says Mazhar Abbas, a political analyst, who works for Pakistan's ARY television.

In an surprise twist, Pakistani authorities said Friday that Bhutto was not hit and killed by gunshots as earlier reported, but rather that she died from a skull fracture suffered when she hit her head during the suicide attack. Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said all three shots missed her as she greeted supporters through the sunroof of her armored vehicle. He said Bhutto was killed when shockwaves from a bomb blast, moments later, knocked her head into a lever attached to the sunroof, fracturing her skull. There was no autopsy before her burial, so questions about the sequence of events may never be fully resolved.

Pakistan is less than two weeks away from a general election that Bhutto's party had been expected to dominate. Sharif has been calling on his followers to boycott the election, while President Pervez Musharraf remains a target of protests for his lengthy military rule and recent declaration of a state of emergency to quell unrest. Bhutto's supporters, meanwhile, took to the streets to protest her assassination. At least 23 people were killed in several cities as cars and trains were torched and marchers chanted anti-Musharraf slogans.

It is uncertain whether Pakistan will hold parliamentary elections as scheduled January 8. For months, the Bush administration had been playing a behind-the-scenes role in trying to negotiate a power-sharing accord between Musharraf and Bhutto to stabilize Pakistan. Bhutto had personal ties to political Washington going back many years and was seen as a pro-American alternative to Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister in a 1999 military coup led by then-General Musharraf.

Now, the focus is turning to Sharif, who remains palatable to certain swaths of Pakistani society because he is not seen as too close a friend of the United States. In the wake of Bhutto's death, Sharif called for Musharraf's resignation and he pledged to "avenge" Bhutto's murder and to carry on her mission for restoration of democracy, rule of law, and tolerance in Pakistan.

Irfan Siddiqui, a columnist for the daily newspaper Nawa-I-Waqt, says Sharif could prove more capable than Bhutto of tackling the growing extremism in the country. "He is a moderate man with no American brand, which nowadays is a disadvantage in Pakistani society," Siddiqui says. "He is equally acceptable to religious and secular people."

For Washington, the prime concern is the growing militancy in the northern tribal belt of Pakistan. Amid a spike in suicide bombings, the Pakistani Army, backed by the technical support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, is trying to tame the burgeoning, pro-al Qaeda forces known locally as the re-emerging Taliban.

With Aamir Latif in Pakistan