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State of the nation, post-Bhutto

Text by Nandita VIJ

Latest update : 2009-04-22

The untimely death of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has plunged the nuclear-armed Muslim nation into a deep political crisis as her political party grapples to find a new chief and the Pakistani people, another beacon of hope.

The sudden, shocking killing of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in a well-planned attack has plunged the nuclear-armed South Asian nation into one of the worst crises in its 60 year history.


Her violent death came just days ahead of general elections, which were scheduled for Jan. 8. Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), one of Pakistan’s leading secular parties, was campaigning for the elections when she was killed.

But her death has raised questions about the fate of the Jan. 8 national and provincial elections.
Speaking to France 24 a day after Bhutto’s assassination, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reiterated that his Pakistan Muslim League party (PML-N) would boycott the elections. A long time political rival of Bhutto, Sharif had been building bridges with the PPP chief in their joint opposition to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
In his interview with France 24, Sharif blamed Musharraf for the instability plaguing Pakistan.
“What is happening is the consequence of Musharraf's policies; Pakistan is suffering because of his actions,” said Sharif. “We have very serious reservations about how elections will be conducted by Musharraf. How can one run an election in these circumstances?”
Fate of elections at stake
Analysts are skeptical of how fair elections could be held in such a volatile situation.
“Elections would not be credible in such a situation,” said Mariam Abou Zahab from the Paris-based Institute of Political Studies. “President Pervez Musharraf may be tempted to declare emergency by saying the situation is out of control.”
The election was a crucial step toward restoring democracy following Musharraf’s declaration of emergency rule in November 2007.
The PPP had agreed to contest the elections following the withdrawal of emergency rule and Bhutto had been trying to work with Musharraf to combat the growing tide of
Islamic extremism in Pakistan.
Filling a leadership vacuum in the PPP
But with Bhutto’s death, the PPP has been robbed of a charismatic leader and is confronting a leadership vacuum. “Benazir Bhutto was a woman of power, a self-proclaimed chairman of the PPP for life,” said Abou Zahab. “There was nobody who could possibly take over.”
Analysts in Pakistan, however, say Bhutto’s successor is likely to hail from the Bhutto clan.
The eldest daughter of former Prime Minister and PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bhutto hails from an aristocratic family from the Sindh province. The Bhutto family, like the Gandhi family in neighbouring India, is widely seen as a postcolonial political dynasty, one that enjoys widespread traditional support.
“Benazir Bhutto’s daughter, Bakhtawar Zardari, or her son, Bilawal Zardari, could likely be candidates to carry on the Bhutto family’s legacy,” said Ajmal Shahdin, journalist and political analyst for Pakistan’s Daily Times. “Benazir’s sister Sanam Bhutto and 25 year-old niece Fatima Bhutto - the last remaining members of the Bhutto dynasty - could also be possible candidates.”

A vacuum in Pakistan’s political soul
Bhutto’s untimely death has left not only a vacuum within PPP ranks, but also a gaping hole in Pakistan’s shaky road to democracy.
Analysts are divided over whether Sharif could take on the mantle of representing Pakistan’s secular democratic hopes.
Hours after her death, a visibly shaken Sharif seemed to hold out the hope in an impromptu address to PPP supporters at the Rawalpindi hospital where she was declared dead. “I will fight your battle now,” said Sharif.
The PML-N leader has called for a nationwide strike on Friday. The response to his strike call could be a barometer to measure Sharif’s support following Bhutto’s demise.

Date created : 2007-12-28