After a weekend of bloodshed and anger in which riots brought Pakistan to a standstill and the presidency of Pervez Musharraf was again plunged into crisis, Benazir Bhutto's husband made an astonishing announcement.
His son, Bilawal, a 19-year-old college student, would take over for his mother as leader of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and the party was willing to contest elections on Jan. 8 – less than two weeks after Ms. Bhutto's assassination.
"My mother always said democracy is the best revenge," Bilawal told reporters Sunday.
At the close of a weekend in which at least 38 people were killed in rioting aimed predominately at Mr. Musharraf's government, the announcement creates confusion about whether the election will go forward. An official of Musharraf's ruling party had earlier suggested that the vote could be delayed up to four months.
It is both a lifeline and a threat for Musharraf, whose popularity has plummeted and whose legitimacy depends in large part on these elections. Yet if elections go ahead Jan. 8, there is the possibility that the PPP could win a massive sympathy vote, making the party a far more potent force than it otherwise would have been.
Musharraf "is in a genuinely difficult spot," says Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst at RAND, a strategic consultancy in Arlington, Va.
Already, the nation's anger has turned against him. Since Bhutto's assassination Dec. 27, many have accused Musharraf of negligence, saying he provided minimal security for Bhutto. Others claimed a conspiracy, pointing to the odd statements and actions made by the government since her death – for instance, saying Friday that she was killed, not by bomb or bullet, but by hitting her head on a sunroof lever.
The only logical step, it had seemed, was the postponement of the general elections. "I have never seen Pakistan this much in unison, everyone is devastated," says Ayesha Jalal, a Pakistani historian and analyst.
To help his own cause, she says, Musharraf "could delay the polls to allow [Bhutto's] Pakistan People's Party to mourn its leader."
Accordingly, an official of Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid (PML-Q) said yesterday that a postponement of seven to 12 weeks was likely, adding that the vote might not be credible if it is held next week. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of Pakistan's other major opposition party, had already pledged to boycott the vote.
Then came the announcement yesterday from Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, that the PPP would be ready for Jan. 8 elections – and urging Mr. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N) not to boycott. Though Bilawal is technically the new PPP chairman, Mr. Zardari is expected to play the role of regent until Bilawal graduates from Oxford University.
Government officials are scheduled to talk to party leaders about the election Monday.
On one hand, Mr. Zardari's willingness to plunge the PPP into Jan. 8 elections suggests that Musharraf's election gambit will not collapse entirely. Even before Bhutto's death, many officials within the PPP wished to boycott the elections, because they believed that the vote would only serve to prop up Musharraf. Under pressure from Washington, Bhutto alone prevented this, and there was the possibility that, with her gone, the PPP would join the PML-N in a massive boycott, making a sham of Musharraf's government.
For the moment, that seems unlikely. Instead, some experts say Zardari now senses unprecedented opportunity in the Jan. 8 elections. The desire to win votes "could definitely be a factor," says Azmat Hassan, a former Pakistani ambassador to Syria, now a political scientist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.
Whether Musharraf decides to delay the vote anyway is another question. Clearly, he wants his PML-Q to win. But experts suggest the chances of that happening in a free and fair election are virtually nonexistent. The second best option for Musharraf is a parliament with no majority, allowing him to play each faction off the other.
Until Bhutto's assassination, that seemed likely. Now, that outcome is less certain. Moreover, the current climate would make it much harder to rig the election if Musharraf wished. "Now, if the PPP finish second or third in the voting, there will be an almighty uproar," says Mr. Hassan.
Zardari also struck a combative note in calling for an international investigation into his wife's death. To be sure, Musharraf has only added to his problems with the way his government handled the aftermath of Bhutto's death.
Many critics wonder why the wreckage of the bomb blast was hosed away within hours. "You've got to allow forensics to come in there and collect evidence," says Ms. Jalal, the historian. Moreover, Sherry Rehman, a colleague of Bhutto's who was at the site of the explosion dismissed as "lies" any suggestion that Bhutto was killed by a blow to the head, saying she had seen a gunshot wound.
In a country weaned on conspiracy theories and political intrigue, where information and evidence are often scarce, "the perception matters as much as the reality," says Jalal. To many, the appearance is that the government is trying to protect itself.
By saying that Bhutto died from head trauma, the government is arguing that its security was sufficient – Bhutto simply made the mistake of putting her head through the open sunroof at the wrong time. It also has been seen as an attempt to puncture the growing legend of her martyrdom, making it seem a freak accident.
"People are furious about this," adds Jalal.
To others, it is merely the continuation of a nine-month-long trend of strategic missteps, beginning with the sacking of the chief justice of the Supreme Court in March. "This is a classic example of the government mishandling the situation as it has been for a good part of the year now," says Huma Shah, a freelance journalist.
"The government just isn't doing what it claims to be doing – what it should be doing," she says. "Instead it's directing all its energy in doing whatever it can to keep
itself in place."
The result is that Bhutto's assassination has not galvanized Pakistanis against terrorism the way the West might have hoped. "Subconsciously, people know" about the problems that terrorism presents, says Najam Sethi, a columnist for the Daily Times, an English-language newspaper in Lahore. "But they won't admit it because it distracts from the main point" – their more deeply ingrained distrust of government.
It is not that Pakistanis don't want to fight terrorism, experts add. Rather, it is that the lines have become so blurred that they do not know who the enemy is. If there were "some level of satisfaction with the government's investigation into the assassination," the country could perhaps look more closely at terrorism, says Talat Masood, a security analyst in Islamabad. But that is not happening, he says.
Therefore, the government's assertion that militant leader Baitullah Mahsud was behind the attack has been met with skepticism. "People here feel it's too pat to blame Al Qaeda," says historian Jalal. "They want answers."