LAHORE – The suicide bombers who attacked Benazir Bhutto’s convoy as it traveled through Karachi managed to kill 140 people and injure more than 550. But their real targets were free and fair elections, and a return to some kind of parliamentary democracy rather than continued military rule. The bombers failed to kill Bhutto, but they may have succeeded in paralyzing Pakistan’s political process.
The future of what is still a tentative alliance between Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf may now be in jeopardy. Mistrust between the two leaders has deepened since Bhutto accused key officials in his regime of being sympathetic to the bombers.
Many Pakistanis became hopeful this spring that Musharraf was serious about finding an exit strategy for the army, creating a national political consensus, and leading a transition away from army rule to a genuine civilian democracy with an empowered parliament. The army needed this shift, we thought, in order to broaden political support to fight Pakistani extremists and Taliban, who now control a broad swathe of territory in northern Pakistan.
Instead, Musharraf sacrificed Pakistan’s broader political needs to his sole aim of winning re-election for a second presidential term. The political climate worsened as Musharraf confronted the opposition parties, the judiciary, lawyers and civil society. Pakistani Taliban took advantage of the army’s loss of control to launch a wave of suicide bombings across the country, as al-Qaeda leaders called for the Pakistani Taliban to topple Musharraf.
It was soon clear that the army was looking for neither an exit strategy nor a transition to democracy, only to maintain its own power under a new mandate. Only intense international pressure, particularly from Washington and London, forced the army to negotiate with Bhutto to allow her to return and participate in the elections. The massive public turnout she received in Karachi demonstrated that her Pakistan Peoples Party is the only national organization in the country that still claims wide public support.
The army continues to mistrust and even loathe Bhutto, but for the moment they have no choice but to work with her. Musharraf’s popularity has collapsed, and the army’s stark failure in defeating the Pakistani Taliban contrasts sharply with Bhutto’s determination to confront rather than appease the extremists. Her defiance has gone down well in Washington and other Western capitals, but not necessarily with the army or the large section of the conservative public. Other political parties don’t help, either; some are too scared to condemn the extremists, while others sympathize with them and do not want to appear to be pro-American. Musharraf’s biggest failure has been his inability to convince the public that the battle against Pakistani extremism is not just America’s war but Pakistan’s, also.
The military could still hobble Bhutto by declaring an emergency and postponing general elections, although that would only exacerbate tensions with the entire political opposition, the activist Supreme Court and the international community. The army’s second option would be to hold elections but rig them selectively (as it did in 2002) so that the PPP does not win a ruling majority and Bhutto cannot come to power. Of course, attacks on Bhutto’s convoy only reinforced the fact that effective campaigning by any political party will be impossible with the present threat of extremist violence.
With an indecisive election result, the army could then force Bhutto into an alliance with two right-wing parties: the Pakistan Muslim League and the Jamaat-e Ullema Islam. The ruling PML are trying desperately to undermine the Bhutto-Musharraf rapprochement and persuade the generals to postpone the January elections for a year; it has served the military regime since the rigged general elections in 2002. The JUI is the leading pro-Taliban Islamic fundamentalist party and a key ally of the army. Such a coalition government would be plagued by in-fighting, allowing President Musharraf and the army to retain effective power.
The army needs Bhutto – so it can cobble together a future government that would satisfy its American backers, but not limit its own powers. If the army is successful, then the battle against extremism will be all but lost. Bhutto can only hope that her public mobilization may force the army to hold a genuine free and fair election. In the meantime, the bombers will try to make sure that Pakistan continues to teeter on the edge.
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