PESHAWAR, Pakistan—Early this afternoon, Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the Awami National Party, told me that his election campaign hadn’t been affected by a series of recent bombings linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida. “We are the only party whose campaign is in full swing, and the only party that holds public meetings at night,” he said. An hour later, Khan stood on a makeshift stage in a village outside Peshawar, speaking to a few hundred followers, when a man in the front row interrupted him midsentence to announce that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated. Khan relayed the news over the PA system, bowed his head in respect, and walked off the stage. The all-male crowd of Pashtuns dispersed. They looked confused, scared, and lost. They had come to hear Khan, but they left thinking only of Bhutto.
Terrorists had already struck Bhutto’s campaign once. On Oct. 18, suicide bombers targeted the chairperson-for-life of the Pakistan Peoples Party as she returned to her homeland after an eight-year exile. The bombers barely missed her, but they killed 140 others. After that, Bhutto confined most of her campaigning to her home province of Sindh. When she came to Peshawar, the capital of the insurgency-hit North West Frontier Province, on Wednesday, thousands of seats remained empty as many stayed away, fearing violence. One man was arrested as he tried to enter the rally with explosives.
Today, Bhutto led a rally in Rawalpindi, the garrison city that abuts Islamabad, the capital. After the rally, she got into her white, armored Land Cruiser and rode away. Her supporters crowded around the car, so Bhutto poked her head through the sunroof to wave. When she did so, a gunman fired and hit her. (Earlier in the day, a sniper shot and killed at least four activists from Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, also in Rawalpindi. The sniper attacks introduce a new kind of political violence in Pakistan.) Moments later, a suicide bomber exploded beside the Land Cruiser. It remains uncertain whether Bhutto died from the bullet or the blast.
On the ride back to Peshawar from the Awami National Party meeting, I stared out the window, utterly shocked. No one in the car spoke. A gloom smothered the back roads that wind through the dark forests of the North West Frontier Province. I felt similar to how I had on a few other occasions over the last couple of years, times when it seemed that President Pervez Musharraf’s government couldn’t last much longer. I thought back to May 12, when police stood by and watched as armed activists of rival political parties killed one another and returned Karachi to its gangland days. And to the Red Mosque siege, when Islamic militants launched a rebellion against Musharraf’s government in Islamabad, and at least 100 people died. And to Oct. 18, when hundreds of thousands of Bhutto supporters spilled into the streets of Karachi to welcome her home and seemed destined to lift the PPP to power. In each case, Musharraf seemed either mad, impulsive, or simply unpopular. Yet the street demonstrations that are bound to follow Bhutto’s funeral tomorrow, and the way Musharraf chooses to handle them, could well be the defining moment of his political career.
As we finally entered Peshawar, a line of empty passenger buses streamed out of the city in anticipation of rioters setting them on fire. Would-be bus passengers stood on the side of the road, thumbing for a ride from anyone willing to enter the city. We planned to drive through, but we were stopped soon after crossing the city limits when we noticed a flaming car in the middle of the road a few hundred yards ahead. Meanwhile, shopkeepers pulled down their metal shutters. Most plan to stay closed for days. Musharraf declared a three-day mourning period. Parts of the country will burn the whole time.
But burning cars, army patrols rolling through city streets, and riots are nothing new to Pakistan. What has changed dramatically is the election calculus heading toward the polls scheduled for Jan. 8. After months of debating the merits of a boycott and eventually deciding, along with Bhutto, to contest the elections, Nawaz Sharif announced today that he will, after all, boycott the vote. The PPP will probably decide to do the same, leaving Musharraf’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League as the only big party in the field. This will cast already suspect elections as totally fraudulent, a point the lawyers and university students have been arguing for months. The misfortune of Bhutto’s assassination may wind up uniting the secular, civilian forces within Pakistan’s body politic.
Some have suggested that Musharraf could use Bhutto’s assassination as a pretense to postpone the elections and reimpose a state of emergency. In fact, the retired general is caught in a precarious position. If he doesn’t delay the elections, the opposition will accuse him of being callous. They’ll want to know how they can possibly campaign in an environment where memories of Bhutto’s murder are so fresh. But if he delays the elections, they’ll accuse him of trying to hijack the democratic process. The fact remains that Musharraf needed Bhutto. Without her on the scene, his choices look grim. The gloom I felt on those winding back roads of the North West Frontier Province may be present in the lavish chambers of the presidential palace tonight.