It was a death foretold when a suicide bomber killed former Pakistan Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto after an election rally of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on December 27. That perhaps was why grief so rapidly turned into fury. PPP supporters took to the streets in violent protest in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and a dozen other cities. Thirty-one were killed in gun battles, including several police. More may fall after Bhutto's tumultuous funeral in her ancestral home of Larkana on Friday. With two weeks to go before elections, Pakistan is a country on a precipice.
The significance of Bhutto's murder was felt at once. She had just addressed the rally and was standing atop her steel-reinforced land cruiser when a motorcyclist drove up, opened fire and blew himself up. She was rushed to hospital where she died of wounds to the chest, neck and head. Twenty others perished, mostly PPP cadre.
Benazir is the fourth of her family to meet a violent, political demise. The Islamist and pro-American dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq ousted and then hanged her father, Prime Minister Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, in 1979. Her brothers, Shahnawaz and Muntazer, were killed in 1985 and 1996, probably by Pakistan's intelligence agencies. And she herself narrowly escaped death when a suicide bomber killed 137 of her supporters on return to Karachi on October 18 after eight years of self-imposed exile.
She was--clearly--a target. Yet the overwhelming sentiment of the tens of thousands who converged on Larkana was not just grief but outrage: how could an assassin get so close to their leader at a place where there were hundreds of police, dozens of bodyguards and perhaps 5,000 party workers?
Bhutto said there were four groups that had wanted her dead. The Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, which saw her as a surrogate for American foreign policy, and Al Qaeda, which also loathed her as a woman and a Shia (and, (and, says the Pakistan government, was behind the killing.)
But Bhutto's deepest suspicions rested on those she called the "remnants of Zia": former military and intelligence officers who came to prominence during the ul-Haq dictatorship but who still enjoyed tangled ties of kinship with President Pervez Musharraf's military regime and various jihadi outfits. After the carnage in Karachi she demanded an international enquiry to expose the "rogues." Musharraf refused. If he wants to come out clean from Rawalpindi, he shouldn't refuse again.
It's clear whom the PPP rank-and-file holds responsible. The principal targets of their rage were the emblems and offices of Musharraf ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) faction. The charge was it--together with the intelligence agencies and Islamic militants--had most to gain by the removal of Pakistan's most popular opposition leader. And the fact that the killing happened in Rawalpindi--not only a garrison town but also a PML-Q stronghold--added buckets of grist to the conspiracy theorists.
Musharraf condemned the killing and cautioned calm. But he also gave orders that his police shoot on sight any violent protestors in Bhutto's home Sindh province. He knows there are many among his loyalists who want him to reimpose the martial law he lifted barely two weeks ago and postpone the elections indefinitely. He also knows there will be countervailing foreign pressure against this, not least from his main backer, Washington.
For the administration of George W. Bush the murder of Bhutto is the death of a dream. For the past nine months it has tried to finesse a marriage between a presidency led by Musharraf and a parliament led by Bhutto and PPP. Very simply, she was to provide the civilian cover for Musharraf and the army to prosecute the war against Islamic militancy more thoroughly on American terms. The tryst suffered a near mortal blow when Musharraf imposed emergency rule in Pakistan on November 3. Bhutto's assassination has annulled it. But Bush still clings to the salvation of a "democratic process," which he stubbornly mistakes for rigged elections.
Bush said the best way for Pakistanis to honor Bhutto's memory was "by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life." But most Pakistanis have had it with a "democratic process" that has so far meant carnage, emergency rule and curbs on their own basic political and civil liberties.
One of the first mourners at Rawalpindi hospital on December 27 was former Prime Minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. He was once Bhutto's greatest political foe, conspiring with the army to remove her two governments from office in the 1990s. But outside the hospital he called her his "sister" and her death "one of the darkest days in Pakistan history."
He also said his Muslim League faction would boycott the January 8 poll in protest at Bhutto's killing. Instead, he is calling for Musharraf to stand down and for a government of national unity to be formed based on civilian supremacy, the rule of law and a consensus on policies to do with Islamic militancy and elections.
Musharraf will reject such reconciliation and so will Bush. But it is perhaps the only political remedy that can stop Pakistan from falling apart. The alternative is polarization, not--as Washington dreams--between a "moderate center" and "militant minority" but between an unpopular military regime and the larger part of the Pakistani people.
For all her pro-American rhetoric, many in Bhutto's party held America responsible for the "judicial murder" of her father. Zia ul-Haq was seen as a bulwark against Communism and so all sins were forgiven. In return for massive US largesse, Pakistanis received brutal political repression, nine more years of martial rule and a sectarian Islamism that became the antecedent for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Will Bhutto's assassination have a like impact?
Farhatullah Barbar was Zulfikhar's friend and Benazir's spokesperson. "I don't know," he answered. "But in the struggle for democracy in Pakistan I predict her death will prove no less a watershed than his."