Death in Pakistan Politics

Death is our master – but his seat is shaken

He rides victorious – but his ranks are thinned

                                    – Edna St. Vincent Millay

The continued mastery of death in Pakistan politics was evident in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007 after her electoral campaign speech at Liaquat Square. The square is named after the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was assassinated in 1953. Liaquat Square is close to the Rawalpindi jail where Benazir’s father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in 1979. The jailhouse has now been torn down least it become a pilgrimage goal for devoted members of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) which Zulfikar Bhutto headed.

For the living members of the Bhutto family, there has been the "unnatural" death of Zulfikar, his two sons and now his daughter. For the wider Pakistan society, the death is in a long line of assassinations or unsolved killings of political leaders. In addition, there have been numerous deaths of those who never made the headlines, not even in the Pakistan press – the numerous dead in sectarian conflicts, in regional conflicts, and of those who were just standing too close when a bomb went off.

Benazir Bhutto’s death was a clear security failure, especially given the prior attempt on her life on the day of her return to Pakistan on October 19 when 134 people who were standing near her vehicle were killed in a bomb attack. For a President who justifies his power on the preservation of order and security, Bhutto’s death is a serious blow to the credibility of President Pervez Musharraf. However, even it she had had more guards, there is not much to be done if the assassin is willing to be killed in the effort. Although there have been calls for an international investigation to find who was behind the killings, it is likely that the death of Benazir Bhutto will add material for conspiracy theorists. There are a good number of people who might have wanted to see her dead, from factions of the current government, to Pakistani intelligence agents, to Islamic militants, especially those in the tribal areas such as North and South Waziristan, to people with more personal reasons for revenge.

Benazir Bhutto’s two terms as Prime Minister (1988-1990, and 1993-1996) were marked by grave human rights violations including widespread torture and extrajudicial killings. In addition her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, often called Mr. 10% for the commissions he was said to take on business contracts, had enemies of his own willing to take revenge by killing his wife – the source of his influence.

Without democratic non-violent means to resolve disputes, Pakistan’s many conflicts will only deepen, and regional instability will grow. Parliamentary elections have been moved to February 18 from January 8 so that the political parties have time to re-organize and so that the possibility of a sympathy vote for Bhutto’s PPP will cool down.

In her last will and testament written shortly before her death, Benazir Bhutto left her PPP chairperson title to her 19-year old son Bilawal with her husband Asif Ali Zardari as regent. With the cloud of death hanging over the party, most members have not protested the anointment of Bilawal and the regency of Zardari. A few have pointed out that the PPP was originally a protest movement, born in the struggle to overthrow the first military dictatorship in 1968-1969 and not the personal property of the Bhutto family.

With numerous tensions and armed conflicts in parts of Pakistan, it is difficult to see how an elected parliament made up of the traditional political elites working with the Pakistan military can improve the situation. We will have to watch closely to see if the ranks of death are really thinning.

Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens and the editor of the journal of world politics  

Also see this related article by Rene Wadlow: Pakistan: It Could Get Very Messy

Photo from Wikipedia.