Murder and politics

December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto's assassination yesterday poses huge dangers to Pakistan - and to every nation concerned about such issues as Islamic militancy, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the future of Afghanistan. It destroys the well-intentioned efforts of the Bush administration to foster a compromise that could lead to a restoration of democracy in Pakistan.

It is also a serious blow to President Pervez Musharraf. He will be blamed for the attack, even if - as seems probable - it was carried out by forces opposed to his rule. At the very least, he will be blamed for not preventing it. Perhaps more important, it denies him a counterpart from the democratic side of Pakistani politics with whom he can do business.

Ms. Bhutto had the standing to deal with him. The only other civilian politician who might have tried, the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is unpopular and legendarily corrupt. He announced yesterday that he and his party will boycott the parliamentary elections scheduled for January, which would render them beside the point. And that will leave Mr. Musharraf in an unenviable position as he tries to regain some measure of legitimacy.

His first task will be to contain the protests that are sure to break out across much of the country. Doing so in a way that doesn't provoke even more protests won't be easy. His second task will be to figure out some way to assuage his democracy-minded critics and reanimate Pakistan's move toward seating an elected civilian government. Washington will be sure to lean heavily on him, on both counts, as well it should.

There is no alternative. Mr. Musharraf is so unpopular that a martial crackdown would almost certainly unleash a furious backlash. On one side would be the secular urban population represented by Ms. Bhutto. On another would be the Islamic militants who have caused so much trouble in Pakistan, who clearly have allies within the power structure, and who would be sure to profit from the crisis. If Pakistan, with its strategic location and its nuclear weapons, unravels, things would begin to look pretty nightmarish.

Should the United States simply drop its support for Mr. Musharraf, given that that support hasn't done much to fend off one crisis after another? The problem is that there are no obvious successors. Unfortunately, Ms. Bhutto made sure to purge any from her own party. The establishment of a representative government will be the best way to groom future leaders - leaders who will one day have more credit from their own people and thus better chances for success than the former army chief at holding their dangerously fractious country together.

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