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Q&A: Governor's Murder Underscores Pakistan's Fragility


Pakistani police carry the coffin of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, shortly before burial in a cemetary in Lahore, Pakistan, Jan. 5, 2011.

Pakistani police carry the coffin of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, shortly before burial in a cemetary in Lahore, Pakistan, Jan. 5, 2011.

As Pakistan mourns the assassination of one of the country's highest profile political leaders, the ruling Pakistan People's Party is scrambling to shore-up their fragile coalition in parliament. Salman Taseer was a leading figure in the PPP, a close ally of President Asif Ali Zardari, and an outspoken critic of religious extremists.

Political observers say his death is another blow to the ruling coalition and a setback for efforts to reign-in religious extremists who have repeatedly attacked the government.

VOA's Sarah Williams asked Harsh Pant, a professor of Defense Studies at Kings College London, what the assassination of Punjab Province Governor Salman Taseer means to Pakistan.

"Once again, [it] reveals the delicate state of affairs in Pakistan, and especially when you see the high-profile of the governor of Punjab and his assassination in broad daylight, it brings to the fore some of the tensions that are generating beneath the surface in Pakistan. And I also think it brings to light the fragile state of affairs in the PPP, because they're also struggling to retain their power in the parliament. So on a number of levels, it brings to the fore questions about the viability of the Pakistani state and the capacity of the Pakistani government to take care of the society, especially if it can't even take care of its most prominent politicians."

This was the most high-profile assassination since the killing of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. The fact that Mr. Taseer was apparently killed by one of his own security guards, it seems that security remains a big issue in Pakistan.

"Absolutely, and I think the fact that he was one of the supporters of the change in the blasphemy laws also tells you something about the sharp divisions between the elite politicians and society at large from where many of the recruits for radical Islam are coming from. And therefore the divide is getting wider and wider. So a politician as prominent as the governor of Punjab can be assassinated in broad daylight. And I think that element of security becomes very important when you think of how ruling PPP is going to claim its own relevance in the changing political landscape in Pakistan. Therefore, there are now questions being asked whether PPP is the right party to go on at the moment when it can't protect some of its own most prominent politicians."

This assassination occurred just a day after the MQM party decided to leave the ruling coalition. How much time does the People's Party to try to shore up its strength following the loss this key coalition partner?

"Well, it has a few weeks time, but the most important element here is the Pakistani army and what it decides to do and how it decides to tilt the balance between the various political factions. So far they've taken a neutral stand, and they have not decided yet to make an official comment on the state of affairs. But the moment they decide to take a stand, I think the winds will tilt one way or the other, and therefore there is not much time, and coming as it does, this assassination, at a very crucial time, it presents a number of problems for the PPP to assert its claims that it claim that it's a party that can bring stability to a country that it already reeling at a number of levels."

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