Less than three hours after the stunning assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the spokesman for the Pakistani ambassador told me he hopes that national elections will be held as planned in two weeks.
Nadeem Kiani, press spokesman for the ambassador, said that the shooting that killed the 54-year-old Bhutto was “very tragic and unfortunate, especially as we were moving toward the [parliamentary] elections” scheduled for January 8. As to whether the death of Bhutto could in any way cause elections to be postponed, Kiani carefully replied: “We hope we will have elections.”
Kiani also told me that Mahmud Ali Durrani, his country’s ambassador to the United States, did speak by telephone to President Pervez Musharraf shortly after news of Bhutto’s death. In Kiani’s words, longtime Bhutto nemesis Musharraf felt her death “was very tragic and unfortunate. He was very sad and promised that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.” Kiani also said that Musharraf had been in touch with Bhutto’s family. (The former prime minister’s husband and three young children are now in Dubai but will be returning to Pakistan soon for three days of official mourning).
Any discussion of today’s assassination and Musharraf inevitably returns to speculation over whether the former military strongman who had once considered a power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto (the idea never reached fruition) had any involvement in her death and what his standing as president is. Earlier this year, when Musharraf suddenly declared martial law and Bhutto was kept in her compound by the military, Pakistan-watchers felt that its President had gone too far. Javaid Burki, Pakistani economist and former vice president of the World Bank, told the Financial Times: “Pakistan is now where India was in the mid-1970’s, when Indira Gandhi imposed an emergency and the middle class reacted against it.”
Musharraf later eased up on his strongarm methods, Bhutto returned to the campaign trail, and a date for elections was set. As to how this latest development affects the political situation and Musharraf’s own hold on power, about the farthest anyone will go is Kiani’s statement of hope the elections continues.
Bhutto was actually leader for life of the PPP opposition party and the party had no number two directly behind her in its hierarchy. Pakistani sources told me that there are several second level leaders in the party (albeit none with Bhutto’s name recognition and following) and party elders will decide who the next national leader is after the mourning period for the slain former prime minister. One intriguing scenario would have Iftikhar Chaudhary, the chief justice deposed by Musharraf from the Supreme Court following hostile rulings, assuming the helm of the PPP. But Chaudhary is under house arrest.
Another former prime minister, Nawaz Shariff, returned from exile recently and has been campaigning for his Pakistan Muslim League Party. But Shariff, deposed by Musharraf in a bloodless coup eight years ago, cannot run for a seat himself because of criminal charges against him that are still on the books.
“What we ought to be doing, clearly, is doing everything we can to help the Pakistani government to figure out what happened, who is responsible, moving as quickly to bring some semblance of stability back into that country,” Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R.-Mich.), former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told HUMAN EVENTS, “What those tactics, what that may be, who knows. I’m assuming there are all kinds of back door channel discussions going on right now that are most critical right now.”