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Pakistan: Political Update

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The political situation in Pakistan has evolved quickly since the December 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. While reports of the how, why and who, along with rioting, dominated the news for a few days, attention soon turned to the political future of the fragile country.

Allegations abounded that Mr. Musharraf had dismissed Supreme Court judges and re-stacked them in his favor, prompting some to threaten to boycott the process. In addition, speculation that he and Ms. Bhutto were in a political alliance, with U.S. prodding, stoked both fear and doubt among the population. Following Ms. Bhutto’s assassination, the elections were rescheduled for February 18.

In recent days, however, her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has emerged as a central political figure. He was named the co-leader of the Pakistan’s People Party, founded by his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1979 on the orders of Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq. Described as handsome, charming and charismatic, Mr. Zardari is only 19 years of age and is a university student in England. He, along with his father, expects to guide their party and country through the recent tragedy and turmoil.

When asked during a press conference in London whether a family dynasty was consistent with democracy, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s response seemed to evidence the young man’s political potential: “You know, there’s a Pakistani proverb that says, ‘How many Bhuttos can you kill? From every house a Bhutto will come’.”

But H.D.S. Greenway of the International Herald Tribune suggested otherwise: “The dynastic tradition is rife in South Asian politics. Parties often come to be seen as reflecting the will of one powerful personality whose successors view the party as their personal property. The pattern is familiar. The progenitor dominates the party, and the faithful hope to find spiritual continuity with family heirs becoming political successors. Sometimes these dynasties find successors that are equal to the task. Sometimes not.”

While it has been admitted that Ms. Bhutto’s will mentions only her husband, party leaders unanimously wanted her son as joint leader. “I was called, and I stepped up to do what I had to do,” he said. “Politics is also in my blood, and although I admit that my experience to date is limited, I intend to learn.”

In any case, neither he nor his father is standing in the rescheduled elections (Pakistani law forbids any candidate under the age of 25). However, it is expected that Mr. Zardari will be grooming the young Bhutto for power in the near future.

In the same press conference, the younger Zardari stated that he feared for the integrity of his country if free and fair elections were not held as soon as possible.

He also called for a United Nations-led investigation into his mother’s assassination, saying that the current government and any inquiry it led were not transparent enough.

The United States has also called for fair and orderly elections.

During a news conference, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown repeated a similar demand: “It is important that the Pakistani elections are free and are fair, and that everything is done to show the international community that all the barriers and obstacles that existed a few weeks ago to there being free and fair elections have been removed.”

President Musharraf has otherwise been relatively quiet. He has, however, insisted that the blame for Ms. Bhutto’s assassination lies squarely with her and her handlers. “For standing up outside the car, I think it was she to blame alone. Nobody else. Responsibility is hers,” he said in an interview taped for the television news program 60 Minutes.

Meanwhile, the U.S. stands to lose a relatively strong ally on the “war on terror” in Mr. Musharraf. Some believe the Peshawar region to be a hotbed of radical Islamic indoctrination. Time will tell whether Pakistan remains a U.S. ally in the war against terrorism—whether priority is placed on democracy—or whether Islamic fundamentalism takes hold in a country of 165 million.

 
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