The Implications of the Bhutto Assassination: An Analysis

Like many Bhuttos before her, Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's most popular political leader and the head of its largest political party, died a tragic and an untimely death. The death of Bhutto has wide-ranging consequences for the Pakistani political landscape in both the short-term and the long-term.

In the short-term, President Pervez Musharraf will find himself in a much more precarious position. Ever since March 2007, when he unjustifiably sacked the Chief Justice of the Pakistan Supreme Court, Musharraf has become increasingly unpopular and isolated at home. He has been facing a series of determined protests led by the legal community. Musharraf has at times violently suppressed protests, arrested opposition politicians and cracked down on the media. Upon her return to Pakistan from exile in October, Bhutto and Musharraf were in the process of reaching a power sharing agreement, which was encouraged by the US. However, the post-Bhutto Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) will likely be less accommodating of Musharraf since many members blame her death on Musharraf because he did not provide her with the level of security she sought. Also, traditionally, the PPP has always been the "anti-military" party. Bhutto's father, the late Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was the first leader to challenge the power of the military. He was overthrown by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977 and later hanged. When Bhutto was Prime Minister, the military was always trying to undermine her. Bhutto, however, saw an agreement with Musharraf as a way to regain political power (she had not been Prime Minister since 1996) and have all corruption cases dropped against her and her husband, Asif Zardari. Bhutto's attempts to reach an accord with Musharraf were unpopular in the PPP. This is not to say that some sort of agreement will not be reached, but things are much less certain for Musharraf. Another short-term consequence is that Pakistan has become remarkably more volatile, and the risk of armed confrontations between various groups cannot be overstated.

The prevalent view in the Western media of Bhutto as Pakistan's "democratic savior" is problematic. Her administrations were extremely inefficient and she and her husband were extraordinarily corrupt. While she had always clamored for democracy when she was out of power, in 1994, when she was Prime Minister, she sought to pack the Lahore High Court with justices who were PPP activists, many of whom did not practice law.

Nevertheless, in the long-term Bhutto's death is likely to have a highly adverse impact on political pluralism in Pakistan and weaken the civilian forces vis-à-vis the military. Despite all of Bhutto's flaws, the PPP has always been the one pole in the Pakistani political system that has not been beholden to the military and could serve as a counterweight to it. (For example, Nawaz Sharif, the leader of Pakistan's second largest political party, the Muslim League, was a protégé of Zia and the third largest party, the Mutthaida Quami Movement, is an ally of the Musharraf government.)

Considering that the PPP is basically a personality based political party, Bhutto's death leaves a large void that is going to be difficult to fill. Her son has been appointed to formally succeed her, yet he is only nineteen. Her husband will serve as acting PPP leader but is very controversial in the party. Bhutto purposefully tried to prevent other PPP leaders from getting too strong. While the PPP may do very well due to the sympathy vote in the upcoming election, its future is unclear. I would not be surprised if the party eventually splits. A dramatic weakening of the PPP would create a void that the military (or more insidiously, the Islamists) would fill and would be a setback for strengthening Pakistan's civilian institutions.

Given the death of the pro-Western Bhutto, the US may now be inclined to back Musharraf and the military more aggressively. Yet, rather than being a bulwark against fundamentalism, throughout Pakistan's history the military has aggressively nurtured the Islamists to undermine the civilian political parties. For example, while Musharraf is viewed as a "moderate" in the West who is strongly opposed to fundamentalism, the military and intelligence agencies helped engineer an alliance of radical Islamists for the 2002 elections, which resulted in the Islamists getting a significant portion of the seats in the National Assembly for the first time ever and coming to power in two provinces. The US and the rest of the world must recognize that the Pakistani military is not the solution to Pakistan's instability, but rather one of its root causes.