In Pakistan, fear of an ethnic divide

The political blame game over Bhutto's assassination and rising ethnic tensions raise worries about the fragility of the country's federal structure.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
Holding fort: Bilawal Bhutto, son of assassinated Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto and now chair of her political party, at a press conference in London Tuesday, with Ms. Bhutto's sister Sanam.

Ever since her return to Pakistan in October, Benazir Bhutto's every political move had weighed heavily on the larger political equation in Pakistan. Now, even after her assassination, Pakistan's most prominent civilian leader is having a profound impact on the country's political dynamics, in the run-up to an important general election now scheduled for Feb.18.

The lingering uncertainty over the circumstances of Ms. Bhutto's killing and the unanswered question of who masterminded it is leading to wild allegations, making the mood of the election divisive – at times along entrenched ethnic and regional lines.

Accusations of involvement in the assassination carry the weight of decades of ethnic tensions in an unsettled federation, where the Punjab Province – the power base of the military and strong civil bureaucracy – has dominated other regions.

"It's election time, so any such issue that gets political mileage is bound to come up," says Ayesha Jalal, a South Asia historian at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "Pakistan has had chronic problems with its federal structure; it's a long standing issue," but Bhutto's assassination has "laid bare some of these strains," she says.

In a country where almost all political parties are ethnic and regional representation groups, Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) stood out as the only faction with broad-based national support. Though her party has a sizable vote bank in her home state of Sindh, the party's populist platform gave it a national appeal that no other party has come close to achieving. Many in the country saw Bhutto as the only truly national leader, demonstrated in public grieving across the country.

Now, under the leadership of her husband, Asif Zardari, and teenage son, Bilawal, the party is trading jabs with President Pervez Musharraf and his loyalists over the assassination, while struggling to maintain the party's national appeal.

Bhutto's assassination has also led to ethnic tensions in political campaigning, making many Pakistanis uneasy about increasing regional hostility if the new government does not emphasize national consensus.

In the volatile moments after the assassination, most prominent political leaders were careful not to provoke divisive sentiments; many pleaded to "brothers and sisters" in neighboring provinces to exercise restraint.

But as a team from Scotland Yard arrived in Pakistan this week to investigate the circumstances of the assassination, a ferocious blame game has begun to rage between an array of political elements.

With a solid claim of responsibility yet to surface, no one is being spared from accusations: Mr. Musharraf and Pakistan's strong intelligence agencies, Al Qaeda and tribal militants, rival political leaders, Washington, and even Bhutto's husband.

And as the dust settles, political actors, desperate for electoral seats, are resorting to the ethnic card. Some observers say it is Musharraf's loyalists who are most keen to do so.

"It's unfortunate that these parties that are Musharraf's closest allies are stoking the ethnic fire more than anyone else," says Ansar Abbassi, a well-known journalist with one of the country's largest English dailies, The News. "This politics is dividing Pakistanis and it's dangerous," he says.

The establishment, some say, may have an interest in creating such divides before the elections. A fragmented electorate would benefit Musharraf and a divided legislature would mean that no single party is strong enough to challenge the president, who was elected for another five-year term in controversial circumstances last year, analysts say.

"The battle is for the Punjab," says Ms. Jalal. Bhutto's death has triggered a wave of support for her party in Punjab, which dominates representation in the legislature, at the expense of Musharraf's loyalist faction. The idea behind rallying ethnic identities at this point "might be to curb the PPP's surge in the province," which is the key to winning the elections, says Jalal.

While Musharraf's loyalists have attacked Bhutto's Sindhi supporters for targeting Punjab businesses and people in the riots that followed the assassination, Musharraf is blaming the tribal regions – especially Pashtun - where he claims the attack was coordinated from. In his last televised address, the president insisted that tribal leader Betullah Mehsud was behind the attacks.

Mr. Mehsud, whose phone conversations government representatives played at a press conference as proof of his involvement, has denied the charges, saying, "tribal customs don't allow for killing of women."

On a political stage where everyone appears to be on the defensive, a prominent Pashtun political leader and senator, Asfandhyar Wali Khan, said, "such unfounded accusations are bound to fuel hatred among the federating units."

"The government's botching of the investigations makes people think there is a coverup," says a civil service officer in the Punjab, who asked his name not be used.

"And when you have so many questions being asked, and not many being answered, no wonder people will resort to blame games and get defensive," he says.

Many fear that the further fanning of such sentiments can only worsen the situation in a country on edge. With Pakistan becoming a central battleground in the "war on terror," a divided country may be more vulnerable.

"If Pakistanis keep getting divided along different lines," says Mr. Abbassi, "it will play right into the designs of forces that want to further destabilize the country or some who want to denuclearize it."

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