benazir.jpgAmidst all of the current mayhem in Pakistan today, there is much finger pointing as to who was responsible for the assassination of leading opposition candidate Benazir Bhutto, with both Musharraf’s government and Islamist radicals bearing the brunt of the blame. In the meantime, elections have been postponed and Musharraf is trying to remain in power despite widespread domestic opposition, especially from the PPP and the poorer sectors of society. The author argues that fair and free elections are the only way out of this political crisis, and calls upon the West to intervene and ensure that they are carried out.

(From Islamabad) THE ASSASSINATION OF OPPOSITION LEADER Benazir Bhutto was carried out on December 27, 2007. Bhutto died after being shot by an attacker who then blew himself up while she was leaving a political rally in Rawalpindi, a city near the capital. There were about 20 other casualties from the attack, and the gruesome murder of Bhutto has sparked spontaneous riots resulting in the destruction of public and private property, including the offices of the Election Commission of Pakistan and the PML(Q). The mayhem that ensued during the next few days, in which protestors violently rampaged through several cities and caused billions of rupees worth of property damage and at least 61 deaths, was unprecedented in Pakistan’s history.

Bhutto was a former prime minister and Musharraf’s most powerful opponent, and this was the second suicide attack against her since her turbulent homecoming from an eight-year exile in October of 2007, with about 140 people dying in the first attack in Karachi. “The credibility of the Musharraf government is at an all time low”Benazir’s two brothers had both died much earlier in suspicious circumstances, and her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in 1979 after being deposed from power by the military.

Benazir had many potential enemies, but who killed her? Musharraf’s government has accused elements of Pakistani Taliban groups and other radical Islamists of the murder, while the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) has accused the Musharraf government itself as being behind the killings. Many people suspect that Islamic radical elements in connivance with some rogue constituents in Pakistan’s notorious secret services were involved in the murder. Earlier, Benazir had accused elements in the ruling party of backing militants to kill her, which many people now believe in spite of the government’s denial. The credibility of the Musharraf government is at an all time low and, unsurprisingly, a substantial number of Pakistanis perceive the Musharraf government to be at least indirectly involved in Bhutto’s death. “The West has been misguided by the Islamism threat in Pakistan” The PPP is now demanding an international inquiry into the incident, although the government is not too receptive to the idea of an international inquiry in the style of the one into the assassination of Hariri, the slain Lebanese premier. The people do not trust their own government to conduct an impartial inquiry into Bhutto’s assassination, and public unrest has put more pressure on President Musharraf, who is now struggling to maintain law and order, as well as remain in power.


Musharraf is secure for the time being, due to Western assistance. The Western powers are loath to see Pakistan descend into anarchy and chaos and the Islamists seize power, because a nuclear power under the control of the Islamists is the West’s worst nightmare. However, the possibility of radical Islamists seizing power in Pakistan, and therefore the nuclear arsenal, does not exist; it is only Western paranoia that envisions Pakistan falling to Islamic hands. The West has been misguided by the Islamism threat in Pakistan to begin with, and it is supporting Musharraf because he is a secular and liberal modernist and Islamic radicals are an anathema to most of them.

The global War on Terror is apparently being fought to end the radical menace, and earlier on, President Bush had been a firm supporter of President Musharraf, who has been a key ally in the war on terror. After 9/11, the USA became an increasingly active supporter of Musharraf, and more than $10 billion in military and financial aid was pumped into Pakistan. Washington also supported the idea of a power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and President Musharraf. Only a few months ago, Musharraf held direct talks with Benazir Bhutto that eventually paved the way for her return from exile. Apparently there had been signs that al-Qaeda’s leadership had reconstituted itself inside Pakistan and posed a threat to global security, so Western allies, chiefly the USA and Britain, had been hoping that Bhutto and Musharraf could unite against that rising militant threat and spur the campaign against terrorism. However, American influence in Pakistani politics is currently limited, and the new political situation that has arisen since Benazir’s death has led to a backlash against Musharraf and the army that might even threaten Musharraf’s hold on power in Pakistan.

“Musharraf’s government appears to be losing its grip on Pakistan The PPP’s leadership acted swiftly, appointing Benazir Bhutto’s 19-year-old son Bilawal, a first-year undergraduate at Oxford University, as chairman of the party. He will return to the United Kingdom to complete his studies, as his mother had wanted him to complete his education before becoming involved in politics. In the meantime, Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir’s husband, will lead the PPP in order to keep power firmly in the hands of the Bhutto family and to make sure that Bilawal can ultimately inherit his mother’s political legacy. Zardari is commonly blamed for embroiling Bhutto’s two short-lived governments in allegations of corruption, becoming known as Mr. Ten Percent because of common allegations that he received bribes on state contracts. Many in the party would have preferred to see the head of another feudal family, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who had run the party while Bhutto was in exile and Zardari incarcerated, helm the PPP. A large sympathy vote for Ebenezer’s PPP is likely in the general elections slated to be held on February 18.


It is commonly perceived that Benazir’s murder has been devastating for Pakistan, leaving a fathomless void that cannot be easily filled. She was seen as a brave, liberal, and modernist leader who had given hope to the hapless masses of the country, but her enemies viewed her as being secular, too Westernized, a traitor to Islam, and an American stooge. Still, a lot of the speculation that Bhutto’s assassination will galvanize opposition to Islamism in Pakistan and elsewhere is too far-fetched. It has still yet to be proved that Islamist radicals killed Benazir, even if the Musharraf government and many in the West are insisting that this is indeed the case.

Why would the Islamic radicals kill Benazir? What would they stand to gain from her death? This is an issue that is being endlessly debated in Pakistan these days. The most that they could gain from Benazir’s death is the leadership of the PML (Q), which stood to be vanquished by her entry into Pakistan’s electoral politics. But does this suggest that the PML(Q) leadership killed her? Although some people are suggesting it, it is still too early to speculate. In the meantime, Pakistan’s government is adamant in placing the blame on al-Qaeda and the Taliban for the assassination, with Musharraf’s government continuously claiming that it has the evidence that al-Qaeda and the Taliban were responsible for the suicide attack. It is indeed a possibility that the assassins got some help from Pakistan’s many extremist Islamists, and some people speculate that she was killed by her political opponents in the PML(Q) in connivance with some elements in the secret services. Many of Bhutto’s supporters have openly blamed Musharraf’s government for the attack, and the assassination has become very controversial. The debate as to who killed Benazir rages on, and the fact is that we may never discover the culprit.


Musharraf’s government appears to be losing its grip on Pakistan. Although some Western circles have been concerned that the domestic turmoil spawned by the Bhutto assassination is somehow likely to endanger the safety of Pakistan‘s nuclear arsenal, the Musharraf government has rejected such suggestions that Islamic militants might attack or infiltrate secret facilities where the nuclear weapons are stored. In the meantime, the upcoming parliamentary elections, meant to usher Pakistan toward civilian government after years of military dominance, have been postponed until February 18. “Pakistanis now resent Musharraf because he has been in power for too long”President Musharraf’s PML(Q) wants to try to recover some of its plunging popularity and to let the sympathy toward the opposition parties die down, as no wave of sympathy can last for too long. Musharraf’s government has been warned to proceed in the parliamentary elections matter very carefully because the new political situation poses a potential threat to the federation of Pakistan. Following Bhutto’s assassination, there is now reportedly a new perception in Sindh that Punjabis killed another Bhutto. Perceptions matter in politics, and this one is dangerous for the federation, but, like the wave of sympathy, this perception is also likely to fade away.

President Musharraf is now expected to rise to the occasion and unite the country by including everyone in the political spectrum in his handling of the extremist forces. According to Musharraf, the enemy is the extremists who want to establish a theocratic state in Pakistan, but many people remain unconvinced. Due to the instability caused by Bhutto’s assassination, the war against terrorism in tribal and border areas is apparently going to slow down as Musharraf focuses on the issue of domestic tranquility. The opposition leader Nawaz Sharif can now do what Bhutto was trying to do, which is play a significant role in building bridges with the Musharraf government to allow for a smooth transition to democracy.

Years of strong economic growth have allowed for a burgeoning Pakistani middle class that now clearly wants democracy’s rule of law. Radical Islamist parties only constitute a minority in Pakistani politics, and centrist democratic political forces are clearly more powerful. It is crucial that credible elections be held, and for that credibility to be achieved, international monitors or a transitional arrangement allowing all major parties to participate in the organization of the upcoming parliamentary elections in February are necessary.


How do you explain the recent mayhem in Pakistan? The public outrage has essentially been directed against the person of President Musharraf, and can be explained by several factors. The most important factor is related to the fact that Pakistanis now resent Musharraf because he has been in power for too long. He has been in control since 1999 and the Pakistani people have had enough of him. It is time for Musharraf to gracefully step down, but apparently his greed has gotten the better of him and he simply wants to cling on to his power. “The PPP has a disproportionate amount of support from Pakistan’s poor classes” This is most unfortunate since he had enjoyed great public support during his first few years at the helm of affairs in Pakistan. Apparently, he has learned nothing from the fate of Ayub Khan and Zia ul Haq, who both lost public support in about the same number of years. It is time for Musharraf to quit, but he just won’t.

The second factor stems from the way that Musharraf has handled the question of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan.

There is a popular perception that Musharraf is an American stooge, ready to do whatever the Americans might ask of him, and Pakistanis do not like the way the Musharraf government has been treating the Islamists. Pakistan is in the midst of a serious political crisis, and a fair and free general election is the only safe exit possible” They resent his policy of eliminating the Taliban in the NWFP, as well as the manner in which he ordered the killing of other Islamic radicals, like those in the Red Mosque incident.

Another reason for the public hostility towards Musharraf stems from his brutal assault on the judiciary and media last year. Musharraf had attempted to fire the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was seen as an obstacle in his bid for re-election as president. Musharraf failed to do so on his first attempt but succeeded the second time around when he removed Chaudhry, along with most of his fellow Supreme Court judges. This was too much for the Pakistanis to swallow, as that single move was seen as extinguishing the hope for constitutionalism and rule of law that the PCO-ed judiciary had come to symbolize. Musharraf then tried to muzzle the media, particularly the electronic media, because its negative portrayal of his own person was again perceived as a threat to his re-election as president of Pakistan. In the end, Musharraf succeeded when, under the guise of his Emergency proclamation, he was able to restrain TV channels by forcing them to accept stringent conditions for operation.

The final factor has to do with the enormous economic disparity that exists between the rich and the poor. Although the country did indeed achieve good economic growth during the last several years, the poor did not benefit from it. Good economic growth in a country does not necessarily lead to equitable distribution of wealth, and this is a well-known phenomenon that has been seen in other places, such as Latin America and Africa. The rising tide does not lift all boats, so to speak. Instead, it is deliberate state interventions that cause this to occur, and unfortunately this did not take place in Pakistan. Poverty has led to resentment against the Musharraf government. That much is obvious, but Musharraf’s government only ignores this stark fact, to its own peril.

“Much depends on how the West, and especially the USA, acts”In spite of the Musharraf government’s denials and propaganda, massive poverty exists in Pakistan. On this occasion, the poor people rose up, as was to be expected given that it has happened elsewhere. Still, the Musharraf government seems least bothered by this stark reality, while the PPP, to its credit, is a populist political party that has a disproportionate amount of support from Pakistan’s poor classes. In fact, the party has been seen as the party of the poor thanks to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s populist legacy.


What next for Pakistan? The elections have been delayed because of the calculation that the PML(Q) needs time to recover from what it has perceived to be a loss to its electoral position so soon before the general elections.

Elections must be held as promised and they have to be fair and free if the country is not to slip into another serious period of instability and disorder. Pakistan is in the midst of a serious political crisis, and a fair and free general election is the only safe exit possible. The Western powers, especially the USA, must ensure that this happens.

Pakistan cannot fail, for what is at stake is simply too important; a failure in Pakistan would have unimaginable consequences in the region. We dread to even speculate as to what could happen. Nevertheless, a timely intervention can possibly avert another crisis in Pakistan. Much depends on how the West, and especially the USA, acts, and how soon. Let this be clear to all.