Tuesday, Jan 8, marks 12 days since the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto - the deeply flawed yet highly charismatic former prime minister of Pakistan. Her grief stricken country now faces multiple challenges even as Scotland Yard detectives from Britain sift through the carnage that accompanied her death in Rawalpindi on Dec 27.
The very presence of a foreign intelligence agency tasked to carry out the Benazir investigation is symptomatic of the deep loss of credibility that the Pervez Musharraf-led caretaker government faces in the aftermath of the killing and the run-up to the Feb 18 elections to the National Assembly. Broadly classified, there are four major, albeit interlinked challenges that Pakistan now faces post Benazir, namely, politico-legislative, internal security, judicial-cum-constitutional and socio-religious - each with a different timeline.
The politico-legislative strand is the most visible for Feb 18, the election date is the nearest being five weeks away and on current evidence it appears that the two major parties - the PPP and the PML-Nawaz - are busy preparing for the event. But perhaps the more urgent strand is the prevailing internal security situation and here the just released Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) security report for 2007 is stark and highly relevant.
Highlighting the Benazir death as part of the deteriorating internal security situation, the report notes that over 1,500 attacks and clashes took place in 2007, resulting in 3,448 people dead and 5,353 injured. This grim tally includes the deaths of 232 soldiers, 163 paramilitary troops and 71 policemen in terrorist attacks. In a relative comparison, the casualty tally for 2007 marks an increase of 128 percent and 492 percent respectively as compared with 2006 and 2005.
In an even more gruesome statistic, the PIPS report states that Pakistan was subjected to 60 suicide bomber attacks in 2007 - killing 770 people and injuring 1,574 - most of whom were from the security/paramilitary forces. The most dramatic spike was in July last, after the Lal Masjid operation when 15 suicide attacks took place with 191 killed and 366 injured. The total number of political clashes is placed at 12 with 64 killed and an equal number injured.
Clearly, this kind of internal violence and bloodshed does not augur well for a free and fair election and bringing this turbulent situation under control is the most urgent challenge but it has its own contradictions. The pattern of violence directed against the state in Pakistan can be related to the militant socio-religious ambience, which is linked with the post 9-11 global war against terror, the perceived perfidy of Gen. Musharraf - then army chief - his sacking of the chief justice and the final straw, the military operation against the radicals who had seized the Lal Masjid complex.
The only institution that can effectively deal with this challenge is the Pakistan military now led by General Pervez Kayani but he is handicapped. On one hand he is seen as a Musharraf prot'g' and the Pakistan 'fauj' as an institution is tainted - with the blood of its own citizens on its hands. Yet there is no other viable alternative and in the short-term, Pakistan will have to stay the course with Gen. Musharraf at the helm to stabilise the careening ship of state, even as the country prepares for the Feb 18 polls.
However, there is deep suspicion among the people of Pakistan about the fairness of these elections and the detailed document that Benazir had prepared just prior to her assassination to reveal the manner in which the polls were to be rigged is now doing the rounds. As per this scenario, Gen. Musharraf and his political allies - the PML-Q, the MQM and the MMA affiliates - appear to have a plan to intimidate and misuse the levers of state power to emerge as victors and form the new government.
Whether this will still happen is moot but the extrapolation to what might happen in a truly fair poll (if this is possible) is instructive. In the October 2002 elections to the 342-member National Assembly (272 elected and 70 nominated), which was also alleged to have been skilfully orchestrated by Gen. Musharraf - the PML-Q obtained 126 seats while the PPP won a mere 81 seats. The PML-N was a distant fourth with just 19 seats while the religious right under the MMA umbrella won a massive 63 seats.
This was the biggest electoral victory for the Islamist parties in the history of Pakistan. But the disaggregation is instructive. The PML-Q received just 25.7 percent of the vote and paradoxically the PPP garnered a percentage point higher - with 25.8 percent - though the number of seats actually won was much higher.
Without digressing into how votes were split between the different factions of the PML and the PPP as also the emergence of Imran Khan and his party, what is germane is that the PPP still retains a national profile and the post- Benazir sympathy wave will be a very strong factor. A November 2007 poll indicated that the PPP led with 30 percent, followed by Sharif's PML-N with 25 percent and Musharraf's PML-Q with 23 percent.
Among the smaller parties, Imran's Tehreek-e-Insaaf had six percent, while the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) had four percent and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) two percent. Thus, the PPP ought to emerge as the single most popular vote-puller, but that may not be enough. Of the 272 elected members of the National Assembly, Punjab has the lion's share with 148 seats while Sind has a much lower 61 and thus a strong support for the PML-N after Nawaz Sharief's return to the 'maidan-e-jang' is very likely. Thus it will be a very keenly contested election and the possibility of a PPP-PML(N) seat/power sharing before and after the elections cannot be ruled out.
But the post-election picture is fraught with judicial and constitutional landmines. If the next prime minister of Pakistan is not from the Musharraf camp and has the appropriate legislative majority, the possibility of reopening the various constitution amendments introduced by Gen. Musharraf and reinstating the sacked Supreme Court judges is a near certainty. This will be a critical development and in such a scenario, the role of Gen. Kayani and his corps commanders will be pivotal.
Will popular sentiment seek an impeachment of the president - Gen. Musharraf, a former army chief - or will a status quo be forged? These are imponderables and in the interim, the wild card is the orientation of the shadowy forces that killed Benazir Bhutto and the manner in which they lurk in the heart of Pakistan. Will Gen. Musharraf's fabled feline luck continue to be robust and will he be able to surmount the multiple challenges that Ms. Bhutto's death has unleashed?
Ironically, his immediate future is inexorably linked to the three A's that have shaped and distorted Pakistan's destiny - Allah, Army and America - but to me, the future looks bleak and splattered with blood - the leitmotif of Benazir's death.
(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)