30 December, 2007

A Bhutto Successor?

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto opens barely-healed wounds and leaves a nuclear power at the risk of civil war.

The most pressing priority for nuclear-armed Pakistan -- and the world -- now that the Bhutto dynasty has been terminated is to avoid having this difficult country descend into civil war.

Pakistan is barely a unitary state, riven by centuries-old ethnic and clan rivalries constantly refreshed by revenge. The Bhutto family's stronghold was the massive southern Sindh province, centered on the country's biggest and richest city, Karachi. Benazir Bhutto easily carried the south, but her Pakistan People's Party has always struggled for ground in the politically dominant northern Punjab, hence her fateful decision to campaign yesterday for next month's election in Rawalpindi.

That she was killed doing so, in the Punjab, will incense the resentful south. Punjabis have traditionally dominated government in Pakistan, civilian and military, and often in coalition with the Pashtuns of the fractious NorthWest Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan. For Sindh, the Bhuttos were always a rallying point. But with their "Daughter of the East" champion dead and the dynasty defeated, the isolated Sindhis and Bhutto-sympathizers could be out for revenge.

Any conflict will be fanned by Islamist extremists, including Al Qaeda, which will be blamed by many for today's atrocity -- although it could easily have been anyone; the government, the military, and even rivals within Bhutto's own party have had fingers pointed at them. A religious war is the West's worst nightmare and the situation will be enough to justify President-General Pervez Musharraf again declaring martial law, with Western acquiescence.

There is no logical successor to Bhutto in the PPP, a party founded by her father before he was hanged by the Pakistani military in 1979 for corruption. Indeed, the Bhutto dynasty that has been such a feature -- and often a poisonous one -- of Pakistani politics for much of the country's 60-year history has been extinguished with Benazir's death. Her two elder politician brothers both died violently and their 20-something children hated their aunt and exhibit no particular fondness for her PPP machinery or politics generally.

A senior official of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) told TIME late Saturday that the slain former prime minister's 19-year-old son, Bilawal, will likely be named as her political heir and the new party leader on Sunday. PPP members are due to meet to discuss the party's future and to give Bilawal, a student at Oxford, a chance to read his mother's last will and testament.

A Pakistani television news channel also carried reports that Bilawal will be made the new leader, which the channel said accorded with Benazir Bhutto's wishes. If confirmed, the teenager will become the third leader of the 40-year-old center-left party, one of Pakistan's most powerful. Bilawal will follow his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who founded the PPP in 1967, led Pakistan as Prime Minister for four years in the mid 1970s and was hanged in 1979 by a military government, and Benazir, who took over from her father and was killed in a shooting and suicide bomb attack two days ago.

The quick anointment of a Bhutto to head the PPP will help rally party members devastated by the assassination of their tough but beloved leader. The party hopes to ride a wave of sympathy in parliamentary elections that are set for Jan. 8 but may yet be postponed in the face of widespread violence around the country. Rival opposition parties have called for a boycott of the polls but PPP officials say their party intends to participate.

Many people had tipped Benazir's husband Asif Ali Zardari for the top spot, and in the unpredictable world of Pakistani politics that could still happen. An experienced politician, Zardari served as Environment Minister in his wife's second administration. But he is also a controversial figure in Pakistan, and has spent a total of 11 years in prison on various charges including blackmail and corruption, for which he earned the nickname "Mr. 10%." Supporters dismiss these charges, most of which have been thrown out of Pakistani courts (a few are still pending), as politically related mischief. "He's a strong man," says PPP Senator Awan. "All of us are controversial. Wasn't Benazir Bhutto? Wasn't Zulfikar Ali Bhutto? All those who don't accept the military role in politics are controversial. The charges are 100% unfounded and fake."

The young Bhutto, Benazir's only son, knows the dangers of the job he might be about to take on. Last year Benazir told a reporter that she hoped her three children would choose a different career. "My children have told me they are very worried about my safety," she said. "I understand those fears. But they are Bhuttos and we have to face the future with courage, whatever it brings."

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