The death of one of the most liberal figures in Pakistani politics ends a turbulent year for one of the U.S.' staunchest allies in the war on terrorism. It could also mark the beginning of another tumultuous year for Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf. Mr. Musharraf has been embroiled in several ongoing battles: the rising tide of extremism in tribal areas, and the continuing struggle for political control. VOA's Mil Arcega filed this report.
Benazir Bhutto's assassination in the waning days of 2007 marks a tragic end to what has been a tumultuous year for Pakistan. Her death following a suicide bombing at a political rally in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007 marks a turning point for a country embroiled in a struggle between religious extremists and the liberal democratic forces she led. Bhutto was no stranger to violence. Her father was hanged in 1979 following a military coup. Her return to Karachi in October after years of exile resulted in a suicide bombing attack which narrowly missed the 54-year-old former prime minister.
More than 130 people were killed in the bombing. The government blamed the attack on pro al-Qaida militants.
After the first unsuccessful attack, Bhutto blamed President Musharraf for allowing extremists to hold the country hostage. "The political process is under attack, political leaders are being bombed, political activists are being bombed our country is in danger. Our country is in danger from the extremism that has spread under dictatorship," she said.
A few weeks after his re-election for another five year term as president - Musharraf imposed a state of emergency and suspended the country's constitution.
President Musharraf defended the emergency rule, citing political turmoil and rising terrorism in parts of the country. He said, "Inaction at this moment is suicide for Pakistan and I cannot allow this country to commit suicide."
The country's political problems started earlier in the year, after Mr. Musharraf suspended the country's chief justice in March. The move outraged many in Pakistan and sparked violent street protests.
Thousands of pro-democracy activists were detained, judges believed to be hostile to the government were dismissed and Pakistan's independent television stations, which ironically came into being under Mr. Musharraf, were forced off the air.
The Supreme Court later reinstated the justice. But the increasing independence of the judiciary was seen as a threat to Mr. Musharraf's re-election plans while still the chief of the military -- a move considered by many in Pakistan to be unconstitutional.
Pakistani forces, meanwhile, continued anti-terror operations to secure tribal regions near the Afghan border -- even as Taliban insurgents continued to advance eastward. The Taliban made its presence felt by conducting suicide bombings in major cities.
Prominent human rights activists Asma Jehangir blamed the president for ignoring the warning signs. "The government has continuously refused to heed complaints and warnings from both the public and civil society organizations and has adopted a policy of appeasement of militants," Jehangir said.
Foreign observers warn the religiously motivated violence could undermine liberal and democratic progress in Pakistan. Former U.S. Senator Tom Daschle is head of the U.S-based National Democratic Institute.
"The violence that has persisted in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) is now seeping into the areas of the NWFP (North-West Frontier Province)," Daschle said. He added, "Extremists in southern districts of the NWFP have been attacking video shops and barber shops that shave beards, in an effort to enforce the religious beliefs on the residences of the province."
Under intense internal and external pressure, [then] General Musharraf relinquished his military post in November to become a civilian president and promised to hold free and fair elections in the new year.
"If the integrity of the elections however is seriously compromised and not seen as representative of the will of the people, this nation could face increased civil conflict and the military could become further entrenched in the nation's political life," Daschle said.
While President Musharraf has lifted emergency rule and amended the country's constitution, he reportedly has no plans to ease restrictions on the media or restore ousted judges before the country's scheduled elections in January. "One certainly cannot sacrifice the stability and the development of the nation for the sake of your views on democracy or civil liberties or human rights," Musharraf said.
Critics say President Musharraf will try to keep a strong grip on power by manipulating the polls. Popular approval in the polls might discourage a hostile parliament and dissuade it from trying to impeach him for imposing emergency rule and amending the constitution. Most legal experts, however, reject Mr. Musharraf's assertions that amendments made during the six-week long state of emergency do not require approval from a new parliament.
But some political observers believe the January elections are now in jeopardy because of Bhutto's assassination -- another sign that turmoil in Pakistan will continue in 2008.