A Mourning Nation Faces a Volatile Future

An election postponement adds to the pressures in the aftermath of Bhutto's assassination.

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Benazir Bhutto just seconds before her death.

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Pakistan is by no means a stranger to political turmoil, but the assassination of popular two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto has ratcheted concerns in Washington higher than ever. It isn't just the dozens killed in the looting and violence sparked by her death. Or the fear that the looming parliamentary elections, originally set for January 8, will be delayed longer than the announced six weeks. Or the uncertainty about whether any moderate leader can emerge to fill the giant political vacuum. Or even the lingering suspicion that the government of the unpopular President Pervez Musharraf may have contributed in some way to her killing.

It is, of course, all of the above. But the Bush administration, one of Musharraf's staunchest supporters, is confronting another uncomfortable reality: It is being increasingly reduced to the role of spectator as this troubled, nuclear-armed nation struggles over a future where the promise of democracy seems further and further away. Musharraf's reputation lies in tatters, after a year filled with bold power grabs, provocative firings of Supreme Court justices, and the controversial imposition of emergency rule. Washington's main initiative—brokering Bhutto's return to Pakistan after eight years of self-exile so that she could forge a moderate alliance with Musharraf—is in ruins. And extremists appear to be gaining an upper hand in parts of the country's tribal lands amid a rise in suicide attacks.

At the same time, Pakistan might be less brittle than it looks, at least in the very near future. "We are still not facing a systemic crisis for the country," says Frederic Grare, a former French diplomat who served in Islamabad before joining the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The military will still be there and play a crucial role, like it or not." Musharraf retains the backing of the military, even though he finally relinquished his post as head of the Army late last year. The country's generals prize stability above all else, including the development of mature political leaders. "Where there is serious risk is in the slightly longer term," says Grare. "The real question is: How long will the military keep destroying what is left of Pakistan's politics?"

Musharraf postponed parliamentary elections until February 18, despite protests from Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party, which is expected to receive a large show of support. "The government saw a glaring defeat and postponed the polls," says Farzana Raja, a PPP leader, who added that her party has decided not to boycott the election. "We want to make it clear that we will not leave the field open for them." The coalition of small parties that support Musharraf is projected to fare very poorly, absent vote rigging. But with Bhutto gone and her main rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, barred from running in the election because of a corruption conviction, Musharraf will most likely be left with an opposition prime minister whom he can push around.

Presidential power. For one thing, Musharraf was able to push through constitutional amendments last year to strengthen the presidency. He also retains the support of President Bush, who has frequently praised Musharraf for his help in counterterrorism. "Bush is not known to give up his friends, at home or abroad, so Musharraf has a lifeline there," says Azmat Hassan, a former Pakistani diplomat who now teaches at Seton Hall University. Many Pakistanis remain unhappy that Washington has not pressured Musharraf more to loosen his grip. "All the financial and military aid continues to pour in, despite the extraconstitutional and illegal steps taken by Musharraf," complains Fauzia Wahab, a PPP member and former parliamentarian. "What does that mean?"

Still, there is a sense that Musharraf's time in office is limited. "Musharraf has become so unpopular that his continuation in a position of power guarantees increasing domestic turmoil," warns a new report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group that calls for his departure.