The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto threatened yesterday to halt the country’s tentative push to democracy after eight years of military rule.
Nawaz Sharif, like Mrs. Bhutto a former prime minister and the only other Pakistani civilian politician with national stature, announced yesterday that his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party would boycott Jan. 8 parliamentary elections because of the assassination.
Last night, it was not clear whether the election would be held at all, with embattled President Pervez Musharraf under heavy pressure to postpone or cancel the vote.
The Bush administration had been banking on elections to shore up the former general and his new five-year term as a civilian president and give it at least a veneer of popular legitimacy, ana-lysts said.
“It will be difficult – if not impossible – for Musharraf to shake the pall of illegitimacy that lin-gers over his regime,” said Christine Fair, a South Asian scholar at the Rand Corp.
Mrs. Bhutto’s death “will defer and probably completely undermine Musharraf’s ability to legi-timize what he had done in recent years through an electoral process that will appear even modestly ‘free and fair,’ ” she said.
Mr. Sharif, who had reluctantly agreed to let his PML-N party participate in the election, said yesterday that free and fair elections were impossible under Mr. Musharraf.
“I demand that Musharraf should quit immediately,” he said in announcing the boycott.
The Bush administration was banking heavily on the delicate political transition to bolster a critical ally in the global war on terrorism.
The plan seemed to be progressing well, as Mr. Musharraf had kept a promise to relinquish his post as army chief of staff after winning election as president in October.
The hope was that Mrs. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) would then score well in the January parliamentary and provincial elections, allowing Mrs. Bhutto or one of her allies to take over as prime minister and set the nuclear-armed country firmly on the path to civilian rule.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey yesterday appealed to the Musharraf government to stick closely to the election schedule.
“I do think it would be a victory for no one but the extremists responsible for this attack to have some kind of postponement or delay directly related to it in a democratic process,” he said.
But Daniel Markey, senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr. Sharif’s boycott announcement was an early signal that the democratic compromise was deteriorating.
The opposition now was more likely to take to street protests rather than the ballot box to bring down Mr. Musharraf, he said.
“Everything is too messy now to move forward with elections,” Mr. Markey said. “The government can easily come up with a reason for putting them off now.”
Even more worrisome is that Pakistan may take a step backward if Mr. Musharraf restores the emergency rule he imposed for six weeks ending Dec. 15.
Mrs. Bhutto’s PPP led polls ahead of the Jan. 8 vote, but seemed unlikely to win a clear majority over factions supporting Mr. Musharraf, Mr. Sharif and smaller religious parties.
A poll earlier this month by the Washington-based International Republican Institute found 60 percent of Pakistani voters opposed to the Bhutto-Musharraf power-sharing deal.
Mr. Markey said the charismatic Mrs. Bhutto left no obvious successor in her party, systemati-cally cutting down any promising rivals.
Amin Fahim, the PPP’s low-key vice chairman and parliamentary leader, is the natural successor in the party hierarchy.
But Mr. Markey said the party has some younger more charismatic alternatives, including Ait-zaz Ahsan, the attorney for former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whose clash with Mr. Musharraf helped spark a year of political unrest in Islamabad.
Mrs. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, despite a reputation for corruption, also could play a key behind-the-scenes role as the PPP’s principal source of campaign funds, analysts said.Top