News / Asia

Pakistan Governor's Assassination Highlights Security, Extremist Problems

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, center, surrounded by officials and members of his government, offers a prayer during the funeral procession of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer in Lahore, Pakistan, Jan 5, 2011
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, center, surrounded by officials and members of his government, offers a prayer during the funeral procession of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer in Lahore, Pakistan, Jan 5, 2011

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Gary Thomas

The assassination of the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province was a shock, coming as it did in the middle of a political crisis for the government. Analysts believe it will have no direct major effect on the central government's precarious stability. The killing may intimidate Pakistani politicians and embolden extremists.

As governor, Salman Taseer was not the most powerful official in Pakistan's most populous province. Pakistan's political setup gives that distinction to the chief minister, rather than the appointed governor.  

Analyst Kamran Bokhari of the private intelligence firm Stratfor says that minimizes the direct political impact on the central government.

"Governors and presidents (in Pakistan) are more ceremonial than actual chief executives," said Bokhari. "From that perspective, it is not such a major blow. But it is, nonetheless, a high-ranking state official - one who was very much prominent in the efforts to revamp the religious laws of the country. And the late Salman Taseer never shied from being very assertive about his views, his secular views."

Taseer was gunned down Tuesday at close range by one of his own bodyguards in an upscale Islamabad market. His assassin said he killed the governor because of Taseer's opposition to Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws, which prescribe the death penalty for anyone accused of "insulting Islam." Critics, like Taseer, say the laws have been used to persecute Christians and other minorities and to settle personal scores.  

It is not clear if the assassin, identified as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, was acting alone or on behalf of others. But the killing underscores the growing clout of religious extremism in Pakistan. And, said Bokhari, it also highlights the problem of extremism in security and police agencies.

"If the people who are protecting the state and society from Islamist insurgents and actually fighting those insurgents are penetrated, then that explains the situation in Pakistan, where the government and the state is having a hard time battling this," said Bokhari.

The governing Pakistan Peoples' Party was already reeling from the sudden withdrawal of the Muttahida Quami Movement from the ruling coalition, leaving the PPP a minority governing party. But Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation said Taseer's murder has no real effect on the political crisis.

"Certainly the other parties would be condemning this," said Curtis. "And so I do not think that it in any way sort of deepens the current political crisis that the government is in.  Yet it is a major setback for all of Pakistani society and those who would seek to move forward and to progress."

And, she added, it halts any effort to repeal the blasphemy laws.

"The PPP in the past has tried to roll back these blasphemy laws, but it's always been forced to back away from such initiatives because of pressure from the religious parties," said Curtis. "And I think this will be just one more setback in these efforts."

The opposition, led by Nawaz Sharif, has said it will refrain from pursuing a vote of no-confidence, at least for now. But U.S. Naval War College professor Hayat Alvi - who is expressing personal views - said the opposition can demand and get concessions from the government, including ones concerning the blasphemy laws.

"If there is a concession that they are demanding to stop or impede the repeal of the blasphemy law, then it is a very bad development, if that is what happens," said Alvi. "So there are many opportunities now for the opposition to demand concessions, because they hold that bargaining chip where if they do not get what they want, they can ask for a vote of confidence."

Alvi added that the world of Pakistani politics is wildly unpredictable, in which anything can happen.

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