Benazir murdered: what next?

About the author
Kanishk Tharoor is associate editor at openDemocracy.

Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated today in an attack that has sent shock-waves across the world. As she left a political rally in the northern town of Rawalpindi, Bhutto was allegedly shot three times before the gunman detonated a suicide bomb, killing twenty-one others.

Her death has incited unrest across Pakistan, with activists of her party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), taking to the streets. Violence overnight is thought to have left at least a further dozen people dead. President Pervez Musharraf has called for a three-day period of national mourning, while leaders around the world have condemned the murder of Pakistan's ostensibly pro-democratic, pro-western champion. It is still unclear which fragment of the country's shattered and bleak political landscape is responsible for the attack; while Islamist, anti-American militants remain the most likely culprits, many in Pakistan - especially PPP supporters - blame the Musharraf government itself.

With international scrutiny once again fixed on Pakistan, a number of issues demand greater attention amidst the fall-out of Bhutto's murder.

  • Elections: Will elections, scheduled for 8 January, continue as planned? Probably not. PPP activists may be unwilling to go ahead without their talismanic leader. Nawaz Sharif has now pledged, as was his original position, to boycott the elections. Western leaders have insisted that postponement of the elections is tantamount to "appeasing the terrorists", but Musharraf may find it impossible to hold parliamentary elections in the present tumult. Expect the democratic future of Pakistan to once more be cast into gloomy doubt.

  • The future of the PPP: As Anatol Lieven told toD in our recent seminar on Pakistan, Bhutto's PPP is hardly a political party in real terms, but more of an alliance of "feuding barons" held together by the gel of Bhutto's persona. Without her, the PPP is in disarray. It remains to be seen who will take the leadership of the party, or whether the party will even stay intact.

  • Investigation: Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Mahmud Ali Durrani, has told the American press that a formal investigation into Bhutto's killing will soon be launched. Who will conduct the investigation, and how independent will it be? In the past, Bhutto has called Musharraf to bring the FBI or Scotland Yard into Pakistan. Will Musharraf belatedly invite foreign agencies to join the investigation?

  • Popular unrest: Bhutto's killing has sparked off riots across the country. Security forces in Pakistan are on "red alert". If violence continues, will a degree of emergency rule once again descend on the country?

  • Claims of responsibility: If Bhutto's assassination was indeed perpetrated by al-Qaida or al-Qaida-affiliated groups, one would expect to soon uncover claims of responsibility for the attack. The successful killing of an avowedly pro-American leader like Bhutto could make for invaluable propaganda. Al-Qaida has been behind numerous failed attempts on Pakistani political leaders, including Musharraf.

Already, Bhutto's death is swallowed in the sound and fury of the "war on terrorism". Musharraf and Pakistani officials have blamed her murder on Islamist militants, just as they justified November's emergency rule on the threat posed by jihadists. So too have governments around the world - including those in Washington and New Delhi - used today's tragic events to urge more vigorous action against terrorists.

Terrorism in Pakistan and elsewhere must be tackled head-on. But the killing of Benazir Bhutto amounts to more than the martyring of a modern democrat by the forces of intolerance and extremism. In the coming weeks, one cannot afford to lose sight of the specifics of Pakistani politics - darker and more difficult though they may be - in the face of casual over-simplification.