Pakistan after Bhutto

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 1990’s, violence there between Bhutto’s party and a local ethnic party – now allied with Musharraf – took thousands of lives.

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.