Tenuous hopes that democracy would take root again in Pakistan have faded with Wednesday’s assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The immediate eruption of rioting and other violence from Bhutto’s supporters almost certainly will compel Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to reimpose a police state of emergency he lifted less than a month ago. Another opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, said he will boycott the long-delayed parliamentary election now scheduled for Jan. 8 unless Musharraf resigns from office.
Bhutto had been promoting that election Wednesday on behalf of her political party, Pakistan’s largest, when she was gunned down just after speaking to a rally attended by thousands, the Associated Press reported. Her murderer is believed to also have set off a suicide bomb that killed at least 20 other people. Bhutto had courageously continued to appear in public despite previous assassination attempts, including another suicide bombing that killed 140 people shortly after she returned to Pakistan in October from eight years of self-imposed exile.
A complicated, modern politician in a Muslim world that often denies women any access to power, Bhutto was a champion of civilian rule with leaders selected in elections. She used her Harvard and Oxford educations to bridge wide gaps between traditional Pakistani cultures, Muslim strictures and Western values.
Bhutto’s assassination “is not only bad for Pakistan,” former Indian Foreign Minister Natwar Singh told the AP. “It is bad for the entire region.”
Early speculation about the identity of Bhutto’s killer centered on al-Qaida or other Islamic extremists who hated her refusal to accept male chauvinism enshrined as religious law. But some of her supporters also placed blame at the feet of Musharraf’s government for failing to provide Bhutto with adequate security, since the gunman apparently was able to get fairly close before he shot her.
Pakistani officials had urged Bhutto to avoid public rallies because of the danger to her and others, and she had been placed her under house arrest during the recent state of emergency. But Bhutto wanted to defy the notion that bloodshed and intimidation are more powerful agents of change than peaceful debate and a vigorous clash of ideas.
Musharraf faces a difficult challenge in restoring calm to Pakistan in the wake of this tragedy. But he will dishonor Bhutto’s memory, and likely only inflame his country’s deep divisions, if he doesn’t renew a commitment to leadership through public and fair elections to be held as soon as possible.