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Uncertainty looms in Pakistan after Bhutto assassination

Sunday, January 13, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:48 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.

Loory: Pakistan’s fragility brought Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, home from Dubai to take part in an election campaign. That campaign appeared rigged to re-install President Pervez Musharraf as leader of both the army and the nation. Two weeks ago, Bhutto was assassinated as she campaigned. Pakistan is a country of 165 million people. It’s a nuclear power, a stronghold for al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists, and an adversary of neighboring India. It’s also a key ally of the United States in the fight against terrorism, headquartered in neighboring Afghanistan. It’s a country where political opponents take to the streets in violent protest and where religious and cultural differences often lead to bloodshed. The Bhutto-led opposition responded to her assassination by naming Bhutto’s 19-year-old son, an incoming freshman at Oxford University in England, and her husband as leaders of her opposition party, the People’s Party of Pakistan. The son wants to get an education before taking an active role in politics. The husband spent 11 years in jail for corruption and blackmail. They represent a family where death is the price of political activity. Bhutto’s father was executed for corruption and two of her brothers were murdered. Can democracy take hold in this situation? Is the Pakistan election likely to produce serious results, and what will be done to repair the country’s fragile state?

Declan Walsh, Afghanistan/Pakistan correspondent, The Guardian, Islamabad, Pakistan: People are focused toward the election, but they’re also focused on an attack in Lahore. A suicide bomber approached some policemen stationed outside the city’s main courthouse and exploded himself. The significance of that act is the place. Lahore is the cultural capital of Pakistan. It’s a city that many of the country’s elite come from, and it’s a place that’s avoided the wave of suicide bombing in Pakistan. This act is seen as an escalation of destabilization before the election.

Loory: How will Musharraf maintain control?

Walsh: Security has been heightened throughout the country, but the difference between now and some months ago is Musharraf is no longer head of the army. He resigned and is a civilian president. It may become necessary to bring troops on the streets, but that won’t be Musharraf’s decision to make. It will be made by the new army chief, Ashfaq Kiyani, and he is an unknown quantity. People are waiting to see what his role will be as Pakistan goes through this difficult time.

Loory: Could a credible anti-Musharraf leader emerge and change this situation?

Naveed Ahmad, senior correspondent, Geo Television Network, Karachi, Pakistan: The problem is the opposition was initially divided, but once Bhutto was assassinated her party wanted to conduct the electionas planned. Musharraf’s party said it wouldn’t happen then and that Bhutto’s party would get the sympathy vote. Now if the pre-election rigging is set aside, there’s a great possibility Bhutto’s party would get some good votes.

Walsh: To a lot of people in Pakistan, Musharraf is extremely unpopular and that has become a large part of the problem. That’s the difference between public opinion in Pakistan and in Washington and the U.K. — where policymakers seem to believe Musharraf is still able to influence Pakistan and to lead that hunt against al-Qaida. It also partly explains why there’s antipathy towards the U.S. in Pakistan. People are frustrated by Western countries’ policies, particularly those of the U.S.

Loory: Does the Bush administration understand the antipathy and does it feel any policy changes are necessary?

Bob Deans, foreign affairs correspondent, Cox Newspapers, Washington, D.C.: The Bush administration understands the antipathy. It is a problem for the U.S., particularly when the U.S. is investing about a billion dollars a year in military and humanitarian aid for Pakistan. The U.S. embraced Musharraf, who overthrew a democratically elected leader, but the administration needs to come to a better grip with what the Pakistani people think is in their interest. This administration talks about promoting democracy and it went to war in two countries saying it would install democracies. Yet here is a democratic nation being ruled by a person who took power away from a democratically elected leader and the U.S. is clinging to him to the bitter end, which might be only a few weeks away.

Loory: If the bitter end is a few weeks away, could Bhutto’s party, now led by her husband and her 19-year-old son, have any impact?

Walsh: Bhutto’s party has to hold itself together because the party previously might have been held together mainly by the force of Bhutto’s personality. The danger now is it could split apart because it’s run by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and he’s a controversial figure in Pakistan. He was surrounded by corruption allegations when she was in power in the 1990s. In the elections, it’s expected that Bhutto’s party will get a significant upheaval after her death. Her party may win many marginal seats that Musharraf loses.

Loory: Does Bhutto’s son have any standing as a politician?

Ahmad: People have sympathy for him. He is young and he has a lot to face. His words will be respected in the election. He had a press conference in London and he sounded pretty impressive, except for one question when a journalist said it doesn’t sound democratic that he is succeeding his mother. But people associate with him because of his mother and his father. However, his father could become a major liability. People don’t like him and the division within the party is the biggest nightmare. The People’s Party is emerging as a stronger party, but it might disintegrate into smaller factions.

Loory: There’s controversy about who carried out the Bhutto assassination and why. How important will the investigation be to Pakistan’s political future?

Walsh: Within the speculation about who killed Bhutto, the important point is the perception that somehow people within the state were involved. It’s particularly important for Musharraf to scotch those public suspicions in a credible way. He’s hoping to partially achieve that through the involvement of Scotland Yard police detectives who have come to Pakistan, but Musharraf’s government will be batting questions on this issue for some time.

Loory: Pakistan has a nuclear weapons stockpile and there is concern it could fall into terrorists’ hands. Is this a matter of over-concern in the West?

Walsh: We don’t know much about how Pakistan’s nuclear program works and what controls are in place to ensure weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands if the government changes. In this period of turmoil, those questions will be examined carefully. A great consequence of Bhutto’s death is that the power equation has to be changed dramatically in a way most people fear is difficult to predict. Certainly in a country with nuclear arms there is cause for worry.

Loory: Pakistan has been living on the razor’s edge of instability for most of its 60 years of independence. During that time, it has grown into a country where instability has a serious impact on how the rest of the world lives. Unfortunately, there are few good ideas on how to deal with the problems.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Cliff Ainsworth, Heather Perne and Catherine Wolf.


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