Shattering two weeks of tenuous calm following Benazir Bhutto's assassination last month, a suicide bomber struck Thursday in the city of Lahore, the capital of Pakistan's heartland. The spread of violence to yet another city is likely to raise fresh doubts that security in Pakistan is conducive to elections – already delayed until Feb. 18 – that will bolster the country's political process.
Although suicide attackers have targeted Pakistan's other major cities, particularly Islamabad and Karachi, Thursday's bombing, which left 26 dead and 70 injured, was the first of its kind in Lahore, a previously quiet city of 7 million best known for its rich historical heritage and bustling social life.
Analysts warn against delaying the elections again, in spite of the violence. Only the free exercise of the national vote, however flawed and tinged with violence, can guide Pakistan toward greater political stability, they say.
As yet, Pakistan's elections are scheduled to go on. But Thursday's violence highlights the conundrum now facing the country.
Canceling elections, far from solving the country's security woes, could add to them, fomenting a violent backlash from the opposition, analysts say. But if elections do proceed, voter turnout could be low, with frightened citizens thinking twice about attending large political gatherings or visiting crowded polling stations. Low turnout will bolster President Pervez Musharraf's ruling party, which might otherwise face a formidable challenge from the opposition, some analysts say.
"If there's a serious security situation, many people will not come out. And if they don't come out for elections, that will play into the hands of the government," says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore.
Targeting security forces
The main target of the attack appears to have been a contingent of police who were deployed outside Lahore's High Court, in the center of the city. If so, the attack is consistent with a growing campaign by militants to target government personnel and members of the security and armed forces. Some 800 people, most of them police or Army personnel, have been killed in suicide attacks this past year.
But the attacker may also have set his sights on another target: lawyers who had planned a demonstration against the Musharraf regime.
"This explosion was a couple of minutes before the lawyers were to come out for a procession in front of the Lahore High Court. Had they come out, there would have been more casualties. So maybe this was meant to scare them as well," says Mr. Rizvi.
Lawyers in Pakistan, who have been protesting for more than nine months against Musharraf's sacking of the country's Supreme Court justice, have become a symbol of democracy that militants may also have wanted to target. The answer remains unclear, and no militant groups have yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
Keeping the country on edge
But the intended message is clear, analysts say. The point of these attacks is to scare people away from the political process, from the public act of voting and listening to political campaigns, explains Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, Pakistan's former top antiterrorism official.
Mr. Sherpao, who is now running for a seat in the parliament, has himself twice been targeted by suicide bombers who struck as he was campaigning in public. In both cases, he narrowly escaped with his life, but dozens of bystanders were killed.
"What I think is that they didn't really want to attack me. If they wanted to get me, they easily could have. They wanted to attack the crowds. The same with Benazir Bhutto. What does a terrorist want? To terrorize people?" Sherpao said in a recent interview at his home in Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, the region bordering Afghanistan where Pakistan's militants maintain their strongholds.
Others agreed that the latest attack appeared to be part of an attempt to destabilize the country. "This is a deliberate effort to show that there are problems everywhere. The terrorists are obviously spreading their attacks," says Shafqat Mahmood, a former senator and now a political analyst in Lahore.
But in spite of, or perhaps because of, the militants' suspected intent to keep the country on edge, the political process must move on, some analysts say. Even the prospect of more bloodshed and lopsided results is far more palatable, they say, than holding no elections at all.
"It will be very irresponsible to postpone the elections because if that is what the terrorists want, then we should not do it. The only way forward for us is through free and fair elections," says Mr. Mahmood.
• This story is a joint production of The Christian Science Monitor and Frontline/World.