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Can Pakistan Bring Back Stability?


Uncertainity continues to surround Pakistan's troubled move toward democracy. Where is the country headed?

Pakistan opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has again called for President Pervez Musharraf to resign. He says four steps can bring stability to the troubled country after last week's assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, which triggered several days of rioting and left scores of people dead.

"Musharraf must go immediately. A government of national consensus should immediately be installed. Impartial and transparent elections held under the agreed arrangement by the national consensus. The constitution should be restored to what it was in 1973; the judiciary should be restored to its pre-November 3 position, all gags on the media must removed," says Nawaz Sharif.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, has called for early elections, perhaps hoping to gain more seats in the National Assembly amid sympathy over Bhutto's death and accusations that President Musharraf's political allies were behind the killing. The government has rejected the accusations.

Presidential Prescriptions

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth says this is the time for President Musharraf to rise to the occasion and try to unite Pakistan by including every one across the political spectrum. "President Musharraf should join with them, with the political parties -- all political parties, including Islamist political parties -- playing by democratic rules in parliament. They should be part of this broader coalition to deal together with the forces of extremism."

Inderfurth, who served during the Clinton administration, says moderate forces are key to Pakistan's political stability. "What President Musharraf can do is to join with those forces that, unfortunately, found themselves, many of them, in jail during the emergency -- the lawyers, civil society, human rights organizations. All of these people, they are not the enemy in Pakistan. They are the future of Pakistan," adds Inderfurth.

According to President Musharraf, the extremists who want to establish a theocratic state are the enemy.

Farhana Ali, an analyst at the RAND Corporation here in Washington, says Bhutto's assassination will strengthen Mr. Musharraf's hand in dealing with them. "Now with the latest attack against Benazir [Bhutto], it only makes his claim much stronger that Pakistan has come into the hands of the extremists and that Pakistan now needs to take a stronger stance against terrorism."

But Teresita Schaffer of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies says that as a result of the instability caused by Bhutto's assassination, the war on terrorism in Pakistan will likely slow down. "The question at this point is how much attention will the Musharraf government be able to devote to the border areas when its entire domestic tranquility is shattered and they feel they need to be focusing in the first instance on keeping peace in Pakistani cities," says Schaffer.

What's Next for Pakistan's Democracy?

But Farhana Ali says it is only natural that the battle against terrorism will be put on hold as Pakistan's government wrestles with conducting elections. "The right thing to do is not to be deterred. The right thing for Mr. Musharraf, in my opinion, is go forward with the elections to prove to the world community that Pakistan is strong, that Pakistan intends to remain committed to the path of democracy," says Farhana Ali.

The United States also wants President Musharraf to proceed with the elections, but it says law and order must first be restored in Pakistan.

Until her death last week, Benazir Bhutto was a key player in the Bush administration's diplomatic efforts in Pakistan. Analysts familiar with the president's stance say she had become vital in the U.S. push for democracy and stability in Pakistan.

Bhutto's return in October, after eight years of self-imposed exile, was reportedly brokered by the United States. It marked a major shift for Pakistan and the former prime minister, who was forced from office in 1996 amid corruption charges.

Teresita Schaffer of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says Washington was hoping Bhutto could help move the country toward democracy and build a consensus against extremism in Pakistan: "The U.S. had reposed great hopes on the possibility of some kind of understanding between Musharraf and the PPP in the person of Benazir Bhutto, as way to make a transition from a military-led government to a more democratic one. Certainly, that version of the transition is now impossible. Many people thought it was probably impossible anyway," says Schaffer.

Looming Uncertainty

President Bush has been a firm supporter of President Musharraf, who has been a key ally in the war on terror. The United States supported the idea of a power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf.

The deal aimed to reconcile Pakistan's deeply divided political factions and bring stability to the country. But talks stalled, and Bhutto began campaigning for parliamentary elections.

Many analysts say her death has left Pakistan's political future more uncertain than ever. Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth adds that Bhutto's murder highlights the threat of extremist forces in Pakistan and that it will galvanize U.S. foreign policy.

"It will reinforce Washington's view that it has to take Pakistan very seriously, be very involved in whatever way it can to support the Pakistan government and the Pakistan people now. I think it should lead to a reinvigoration of the U.S. support for Pakistan," says Inderfurth.

President Bush says Pakistanis should honor Benazir Bhutto by continuing the democratic process for which she gave her life.


This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.






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