ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 30, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 31

Pakistan after Bhutto

By Arif Rafiq

The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has brought Pakistan's state of turmoil to new heights. As head of the nation's most popular political party, Bhutto largely transcended Pakistan's ethnic and sectarian divides. Her return from exile in October was seen as a step toward curbing the country's dangerous fragmentation; her murder shatters those hopes. President Pervez Musharraf must take immediate steps - most importantly, the formation of a national unity government - to prevent Pakistan from tearing apart at the seams.

In deciding that her People's Party would participate in the January parliamentary election, Bhutto threw a lifeline to Musharraf, who has been beset by multiple insurgencies, a nationwide terrorist threat, and rock-bottom legitimacy. Both Musharraf and his supporters in Washington hoped that mainstream parties' participation in the election would end Pakistan's governance crisis and provide popular support for a decisive confrontation with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Now, however, the election will likely be postponed. Indeed, Musharraf might be compelled to impose emergency rule again, as he did in November, should Pakistan's stability further deteriorate. There are reports of violence in cities across Pakistan. Karachi, a multi-ethnic metropolis, could erupt into full-scale chaos. During the 1990s, violence there between Bhutto's party and a local ethnic party - now allied with Musharraf - took thousands of lives.

Benazir : Will Musharraf find her killers?

In these circumstances, a state of emergency could be warranted. But, given Musharraf's lack of legitimacy, such a move would further infuriate Bhutto's supporters, whose street power Bhutto had contained since October. This could set the stage for a violent confrontation between the Pakistani masses and Musharraf's regime.

The nightmare scenario envisioned by many in Pakistan ­- a nuclear-armed country actively targeted by al-Qaeda and the Taliban - could become a reality. But this need not be a foregone conclusion. Musharraf, who regularly claims to act on the basis of a "Pakistan first" policy, must now let go of partisan objectives and form a national unity government led by a prime minister from the opposition. Any subsequent measures, including temporary imposition of emergency rule and full-scale war against the terrorists, require the complete support of the opposition parties. Musharraf and his political allies cannot be seen as benefiting from Bhutto's assassination; nor can they afford the perception of a cover-up. His opponents must be incorporated into the decision-making process.

A national unity government must assume three major responsibilities. First, it must establish an independent commission to determine who was responsible for Bhutto's murder. While political assassination is not unfamiliar - Pakistan's first prime minister was killed in the same park where Bhutto was murdered - it is imperative that the culprits be apprehended and tried. Anything short of this would permanently taint Pakistan's leadership and impede all attempts at political reconciliation.

Second, it must take necessary measures to ensure public safety and political stability, while paving the way for free and fair elections. It must offer Pakistan a consensual path toward winning back its tribal areas from the insurgents, end the wave of terror in its cities, and ensure the election of a new, legitimate government.

Finally, it must begin a dialogue with Musharraf and the military on a permanent, constitutional separation of powers. If Bhutto had not been assassinated and, instead, successfully became prime minister, she would likely have clashed with Musharraf over his arbitrary empowerment of the presidency at the expense of the premiership. The issue will not go away with Bhutto's death.
Pakistan's civil and military elite must create a broad consensus - perhaps with foreign assistance, but never with foreign meddling - on the constitutional roles of the prime minister, president, and the military. Ravaged by endemic elite discord since its founding, Pakistan desperately needs an elite reconciliation that includes all of the country's major stakeholders. Otherwise, Pakistan's terrorists, who feed off of political instability, will continue to gain, while the country's poor and illiterate majority will continue to lose ground.

The murder of Benazir need not result in the country's demise. Pakistan's elite have an opportunity to overcome their differences, unite in opposition to militants, and transform their failing state into a stable and prosperous democracy. If they succeed in bringing about a national renewal, Bhutto, a monumental political figure in Pakistani history, will not have died in vain.

(Arif Rafiq, a policy and communications consultant, edits the Pakistan Policy Blog (www.pakistanpolicy.com). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007. Exclusive to The Sunday Times.

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