When Benazir Bhutto, the recently assassinated former prime minister of Pakistan, returned to her homeland some months ago, more than a few of my informed sources made reference to a "dead woman walking."
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It was, they said, only a matter of time before her violent, religiously extreme adversaries would make good on their threats and claim her. Last week, though, Bhutto's luck ran out, allegedly at the hands of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
In dealing with the aftermath, many people are asking questions similar to the ones that they posed after President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency in October. Will Islamabad finally become serious about suppressing the extremist threat? Will Pakistan tear apart at the seams?
Unfortunately, Musharraf already finds himself in a position similar to Bhutto's; he is essentially a "dead man walking." Bhutto's killing easily could accelerate that eventuality, depending on Musharraf's actions.
Before the assassination, some signs of progress had materialized, with Musharraf's stepping back from his anti-constitutional rampage. His temptation now will be to reverse course - yet again - and begin a sustained crackdown. By so doing, he would ignite greater tensions than ever, which is precisely what I suspect the extremists desire. They might even spot weakness in such behavior.
But if Musharraf surprises critics with a counter-intuitive strategy of continuing to seek distance from nondemocratic practices, he could create a disarming effect. Simultaneously, Bhutto's inevitable martyrdom will help galvanize moderate forces in Pakistan. The result could be a setback for the extremists.
There is, of course, the sticky question of parliamentary elections planned for Jan. 8. Without a leader, Bhutto's party will have trouble competing. Even if one is named, he or she will not enjoy Bhutto's name recognition.
A further complication is that Bhutto's absence gives Musharraf a tremendous advantage at the polls; he could be seen as profiting from her passing. In fact, Bhutto's sudden death has prompted another opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, also a former prime minister, to declare that a fair vote is now impossible, hence his party's decision to boycott the elections.
Under such circumstances, the risk of being criticized for delaying democracy is minimal. Thus, Musharraf should postpone the elections for a reasonable period of time to allow Bhutto's party - as well as the nation - to recover.
Meanwhile, Musharraf would do well to make sustained overtures toward Bhutto's supporters, honestly answer charges that his government fell short in providing security for their fallen leader, and counter conspiracy-tinged rumblings that he or his cronies pulled strings associated with the assassination.
Despite such efforts, Pakistan could tilt in the direction of chaos. But Islamabad also could tilt in the direction of stability. By allowing democracy to prevail and shoring up relations with moderates, Musharraf, possibly could ease perceptions that he is a "dead man walking."
John C. Bersia is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida. Readers may send him e-mail at johncbersiamsn.com.