The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has left a huge vacuum in Pakistani politics at a juncture where her presence was vital to the transition towards democracy. The widespread riots following her death provided the government with a pretext to postpone the elections, initially scheduled for January 8. The rioters damaged some election offices and equipment in Ms Bhutto’s home province, Sindh. Analysts note that elections could have been held in the few constituencies where this had happened and that the government should have taken the opposition parties into confidence regarding the election date. When the main parties, including the bereaved Pakistan People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto (PPP), as well as its former rival the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) led by Nawaz Sharif, were willing to participate in the polls, there was no reason to postpone them.
The delay hardly came as a surprise. Many hold the Musharraf-led government responsible for Ms Bhutto’s death, either directly or because of negligence. The sympathy vote for her party, given that she was killed just twelve days before the elections, would have swept it to victory. The PPP’s electoral alliance with PML-N–that the United States is wary of — also challenges the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), the ‘king’s party’ that has ruled the country with the military’s backing for the past five years. The rise of public anger against the PML-Q, as evident in its electoral posters and banners being torn down and damaged all over the country, made it clear that the party would have a hard time at the polls.
Many are skeptical that the elections, currently scheduled for Feb 18, will be held at all. People are expressing the fear that the level of violence in the country will escalate in the days to follow, thus providing the establishment with the pretext to further postpone the elections and possibly impose martial law. Many see the deadly bomb blast last Thursday in Lahore, the heart of the Punjab and the home of the Choudhry family that runs the Q League, as part of this pattern. Earlier, the Q League’s newspaper advertisements published in the first week of January blatantly attempted to use the post-assassination riots and destruction to foment ethnic strife. The undoubtedly tragic loss of lives and property during the chaos has also provided the administration an excuse to target the PPP by registering thousands of cases against their workers and electoral candidates (500,000, according to some newspaper reports) in Sindh.
Meanwhile, there is great public indignation at how the government dealt with the assassination–quickly hosing down the scene of the crime, just as it had done after the Oct 18 attack on Ms Bhutto’s welcome procession, then claiming that ‘Al Qaeda’ carried out the attack, followed by the ridiculous ‘sun-roof’ theory (that Ms Bhutto died from hitting her head on the lever of her vehicle’s sunroof) that the caretaker prime minister had to subsequently apologise for.
The attempt to pin the blame on Al Qaeda omits the historic and widely known linkage between these ‘agencies’ and the ‘Taliban’ or Al Qaeda that Benazir herself believed was still alive, a sort of ‘state within a state’. This linkage has caused great damage not only to the world but also to us here in Pakistan. Following the first attempt on her life the day she returned to Pakistan after almost nine years of self-exile on Oct 18, Benazir Bhutto herself accused that these ‘remnants of Zia’ as she put it, for attempting to kill her. In an email made public since her death, she named three people from among these remnants as being behind this attempt: an intelligence chief and two political leaders from the ‘king’s party’.
The Zia reference stems from events almost three decades ago, when America and other countries propped up another military dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq who seized power in a military coup of 1977 and led Pakistan as a front-line state against the war on Communism in neighbouring Afghanistan. Gen Zia hanged Ms Bhutto’s father, the elected prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979 on trumped up murder charges. The young Benazir spent five years in imprisonment, and was later exiled. She was finally allowed to return when the Afghan war was over and the world began pressurizing Zia towards democracy.
The eruption of popular support for democratic politics, symbolized by the young Benazir, made it clear that the General would have to keep his famous ‘elections in 90 days’ promise we had been hearing for nearly a decade. Gen. Zia’s death in a mid-air explosion in 1988 sparked off spontaneous street celebrations because of his repressive policies and his handing over of Pakistan to the forces of religious extremism. To many of us, Benazir Bhutto represented hope against these forces–despite accusations that her government had encouraged the Taliban during her second stint as prime minister.
As the world’s first Muslim woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto was also a role model for the youth, especially women. Now, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, a Pakistani school girl could reply: “A prime minister.” Not that Ms Bhutto was an ordinary Pakistani woman. She was the daughter of an elected prime minister, hailing from a powerful and wealthy feudal family. Within these identities, there were multiple contradictions–starting with her identity as a woman. At the end of the day she was the best hope for democracy in Pakistan, representing the aspirations of millions for liberal politics in the country. She paid the ultimate price for her insistence on engaging with such politics.
Her assassination has dealt these aspirations a severe blow. But as her son Bilawal bravely said in his press conference in London on Jan 9, “Pakistan has lost its best hope for democracy, but not its only hope.” If her assassination does finally draw attention to the dangers posed by a “state within the state” that she herself had drawn attention to, we can still hope for a better future.
BEENA SARWAR is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Karachi–firstname.lastname@example.org