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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 December 2007, 20:20 GMT
Bhutto killing: What next for Pakistan?
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Policeman stands near Bhutto billboard in Rawalpindi, 27 December
Can January elections be held after Ms Bhutto's killing?

Benazir Bhutto's assassination has left Pakistan mournful and unsure about its future.

The opposition leader and former prime minister was killed in a suicide attack as she left an election rally.

The elections may now be at risk because of her assassination.

They have been seen by both Pakistani and Western analysts as a way of bringing political stability to the country.

The vote has also been considered vital in deploying popular opinion to sideline Islamist militants sympathetic to al-Qaeda.

In the past few years, the militants have carved out sanctuaries in the tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan, and more recently they have fought intense battles with the security forces in several regions in the north-west.

There has also been a low-intensity, armed nationalist insurgency in Pakistan's largest province, Balochistan, while sectarian violence has torn at the national fabric in the country's most populous provinces, Punjab and Sindh.

This has meant that in political terms, the nation has found itself increasingly divided, with an array of disparate power centres including the military, the political parties and the militant groups.

Unrest and elections

With the leader of the largest opposition party assassinated, people are asking whether the elections should be held as planned in January.

Fingers are already being pointed at the administration for failing to prevent the assassination of a former prime minister

Even if President Pervez Musharraf decides to go ahead with the vote, there is uncertainty over whether it could generate the kind of national goodwill needed to pull the country out of crisis.

The security situation may get worse if supporters of Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) riot against the government.

This is likely to fuel the anti-Musharraf movement of the country's lawyers and civil campaigners who say his removal from power is a pre-condition for the restoration of democracy.

Ms Bhutto, with her huge grassroots political support, played a vital role in keeping this line of thinking in check.

Without her, President Musharraf would need to enlist the support of more numerous but less influential individuals to keep things in order.

In all probability, he would prefer to go ahead with elections and get a government in place as soon as he can.

Demonstrator stands by burning car in Lahore on 27 December
The security situation is precarious

But he will be under pressure to keep the security situation steady and to prevent Ms Bhutto's assassination from snowballing into another crisis of legitimacy.

Fingers are already being pointed at the administration for failing to prevent the assassination of a former prime minister in the high-security garrison town of Rawalpindi.

The president's credibility is also at risk because the largest opposition party has been thrown into disarray so close to the elections, creating a void in the system.

The re-imposition of a state of emergency, which was lifted recently under much pressure from the opposition and the Western powers, may be an option.

But by so doing, President Musharraf would risk increasing opposition to his rule. Besides, it is not certain that the army would be willing to back such a move at this stage.


Whatever happens, President Musharraf faces some pretty rough days ahead.

Although he is seen both at home and abroad as having risked his life to take on the militants, he is widely accused of not doing enough to curb the spread of militancy.

There is also a widespread perception that elements within his administration have helped militants secure safe havens in Pakistan with a view to destabilising Afghanistan.

Politically, his closest allies have without exception been elements sympathetic to the militants and their mission, and these elements have been allowed to occupy large spaces in the political set-up during his rule.

In the coming days, these elements are likely to be blamed for the death of Ms Bhutto because, in the eyes of most analysts, they stand to gain by her death.

Such perceptions are also likely to renew the debate about whether President Musharraf is fit to rule, and whether the army has the necessary qualifications to continue to guide the political process in the country.

Former PM, Nawaz Sharif, threatens to boycott elections

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