Friday, December 28, 2007
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s death raises the specter of prolonged political conflict between Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, and the country’s opposition, according to Pakistani and American analysts. How he handles the next several days could determine whether nationwide antigovernment protests erupt.
“I see a lot more trouble for Musharraf in the near future,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading Pakistani political analyst.
Ms. Bhutto’s party, the largest in the country, is now leaderless, and many of its members already blame Mr. Musharraf’s government for her death.
Mr. Musharraf remains deeply unpopular after declaring a state of emergency in November and suppressing Ms. Bhutto and his other political opponents.
Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, the country’s other main opposition leader, is scrambling to reorganize his party after years in exile.
Ms. Bhutto’s death upends the political landscape in a country that has searched, often in vain, for political stability since it achieved independence 60 years ago. Pakistani observers pointed out on Thursday that Ms. Bhutto was shot a few yards from where the country’s first prime minister, Liaqat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951. Since then, military coups, fixed elections and bitter political battles have marred attempts to stabilize the country.
How events unfold in the coming days and weeks lies largely in the hands of Mr. Musharraf, Ms. Bhutto’s husband and Mr. Sharif, according to Pakistani analysts. But it is Mr. Musharraf who faces the largest potential threat.
Analysts said the assassination would hurt Mr. Musharraf politically and place him in one of the most difficult positions of his turbulent eight years in power.
At the core of Mr. Musharraf’s problem is a widespread perception that he did too little to protect Ms. Bhutto or that his government carried out the killing itself, analysts said.
On Thursday, members of Ms. Bhutto’s party accused Mr. Musharraf’s government of exactly that. And Mr. Musharraf’s own supporters blamed the government for lax security.
“The government had responsibility to ensure that she was safe,” said Ikram Sehgal, a Pakistani security expert who served in the military with Mr. Musharraf. “There was a concerted effort to get her.”
Demonstrations are expected to peak at Ms. Bhutto’s funeral on Friday outside Karachi, Pakistan’s second largest city. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, could call for restraint or for further protests.
If Mr. Musharraf declares a state of emergency to rein in protests, he is likely to meet stronger popular opposition than he did when he declared emergency powers in November, analysts said.
“President Musharraf already does not enjoy a high degree of support,” said Ijaz Gilani, the chairman of Gallup Pakistan, a leading polling agency. “With this incident, his ability to withstand all these negative segments about him is even more difficult.”
If Mr. Musharraf goes ahead with nationwide elections scheduled for Jan. 8, he is likely to encounter street protests as well. Analysts said holding the elections would be seen as an effort by him to take advantage of Ms. Bhutto’s death.
Without her, Ms. Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, will struggle to compete effectively in the elections. Ms. Bhutto was the party’s chairwoman for life and tightly controlled its functions, analysts said. Her three children are too young to take her place, and her husband is widely viewed as corrupt and is opposed by many party leaders.
After Ms. Bhutto was killed, Mr. Sharif, the other main opposition leader, announced that his party would withdraw from the elections. Visiting the hospital where Ms. Bhutto was pronounced dead, Mr. Sharif vowed to take on her mantle as the main opposition leader to Mr. Musharraf.
“Free elections are not possible in the presence of Musharraf,” Mr. Sharif said on Thursday, Reuters reported. “Musharraf is the root cause of all problems.”
If both of the country’s primary opposition parties were out of the election, Mr. Musharraf’s party — which trailed them in recent polls — would probably win control of Parliament. If that occurred, analysts predicted, Mr. Sharif and leaders of Ms. Bhutto’s party would mount nationwide demonstrations calling for Mr. Musharraf’s ouster.
“If Musharraf goes ahead with the elections, it will be a one-sided kind of affair,” Mr. Rizvi said. “These people will try to challenge the whole process in the streets.”
Since returning to Pakistan from exile last month, Mr. Sharif has positioned himself as a more vocal opponent to Mr. Musharraf than Ms. Bhutto was. He has campaigned well, showing more discipline and political savvy than he did during his two tenures as prime minister in the 1990s, according to analysts. His clearer defiance of the unpopular president has attracted large crowds to his rallies.
“This steely determination he’s shown since November is a new thing,” said Teresita Schaffer, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Part of it is his visceral dislike for Musharraf.”
The Pakistan Peoples Party, meanwhile, will struggle to chose a new leader, analysts predict.
Its senior vice chairman is Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who, like Ms. Bhutto, comes from a feudal family with roots in Sindh Province. Officially, Mr. Fahim should be the successor, party officials said.
Also being mentioned Thursday night as a possible new party chief was Aitzaz Ahsan, the prominent leader of the lawyers’ movement. Mr. Ahsan was jailed after the Nov. 3 state of emergency was imposed and remains under house arrest.
Mr. Ahsan is an articulate, Cambridge-educated lawyer and a forceful critic of the Musharraf government. But he had a rocky relationship with Ms. Bhutto. According to several members of the party, she resented his high profile as the leader of the campaign to reinstate the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, after he was fired earlier this year.
In the end, the arbiter of power in Pakistan will be the country’s powerful army, according to analysts. Under pressure from the United States, Mr. Musharraf resigned last month from his post as army chief and became a civilian president. While the army is headed by generals appointed by Mr. Musharraf, he is not guaranteed their support.
“An awful lot depends on how the army reacts,” Ms. Schaffer said. “Do they clamp down? Are they reluctant to clamp down? Do they blame Musharraf?”