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Bhutto's death sparks rage - and hope

Bhutto's death sparks rage - and hope

Following the gruesome murder of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the fate of Pakistan's crucial January 8 elections hangs in limbo.
Political analysts say it might now be difficult to hold the polls as scheduled. Bhutto's supporters have gone on a rampage. Even if the riots are quelled quickly, the security situation will hardly be conducive of either vigorous campaigning or fearless voting.
The ballot may also have very little credibility: Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party has a leadership void. Aitzaz Ahsan, the pro-democracy lawyer who's among the frontrunners to succeed Bhutto, is still in prison for his support of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and other top judges fired by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in early November.
Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto's arch rival and the leader of Muslim League-Nawaz, has decided to boycott the polls.
Yet, it's important that the ballot be held as soon as possible. Delaying the vote might accentuate disillusionment with the Musharraf government, lead to more bloodshed and take a toll on the economy.
"A further weakening of Pakistan's institutions, in conjunction with rising levels of violence and disorder, and the postponement of the January 8 elections would lead to a rating downgrade," Standard & Poor's analysts Agost Benard and Elena Okorotchenko said in a statement today.
S&P rates Pakistan's debt as B+, four levels below investment grade. A rating downgrade will push up the cost of foreign capital that Pakistan needs in order to finance its large current account deficit, which now equals almost 5 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
Civil war?
For the next few weeks at least, the political situation will be too fluid for investors to confidently say they see a silver lining. For now, most of the talk is about dark clouds.
"The big take away from this horrible event is that Pakistan could slide into a civil war of sorts," says Win Thin, Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. currency strategist in New York.
Equity investors are more optimistic. History, they say, is on their side.
Rajiv Gandhi's killing in May 1991 saw the Indian stock market climb 160 percent over the next 12 months.
Sri Lankan equities doubled over one year following the assassination, in 1993, of Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, notes Mark Matthews, a Merrill Lynch & Co. equity strategist in Hong Kong. Pakistan, says Matthews, "is still the cheapest market in Asia."
This columnist is also sanguine, but for other reasons.
Different perceptions
Forget, for a moment, the blow that Bhutto's demise deals to the U.S. foreign-policy objectives for Pakistan. Consider what the people of Pakistan themselves want from the elections.
To the mandarins in Washington, Bhutto was important only in so far as she could help legitimize Musharraf's bid to stay on in power as a civilian president after he gave up his general's uniform last month.
To the Pakistanis, Bhutto represented something else altogether. For a majority of them, the rise of Islamic extremism and the regrouping of the Taliban in the northwestern region of Pakistan are serious challenges, which, as far as they are concerned, Musharraf has been singularly unable to tackle.
"There is a vast 'silent majority' in Pakistan that abhors the militants and has come to detest military rule," says Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "They are waiting for a leader. Bhutto, for all her imperfections, could have been that leader."
Make no mistake. The people of South Asia have no delusions about the quality of their politicians.
Bhutto didn't exactly excel as prime minister of Pakistan in the two terms she had, first between 1988 and 1990, and then again between 1993 and 1996. Her administration was notoriously corrupt. And while her recent rhetoric was replete with pledges to root out terrorism, just how sincerely she would have pursued that goal is something that we'll never know now.
But for the people of Pakistan, Bhutto's assassination has a different message. To them, it's just the grimmest reminder yet of "how little success Pervez Musharraf has had in cracking down on the jihadists - they have only grown stronger on his watch," Boot wrote on the Web site of Commentary magazine.
Pakistan's Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz says the administration had asked Bhutto "to be discreet."
But she was a politician, the leader of Pakistan's biggest political party.
With elections two weeks away, it was her job to hold rallies and seek votes. Ensuring her safety was an integral part of Musharraf's promise to return Pakistan to democracy.
Rallying point
Bhutto's assassination could become a rallying point for moderate parties in Pakistan to forge a loose coalition with a single-point agenda: to restore the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law, which have never had a chance to flourish because of a long history of military dictatorships.
It's too early to predict whether such a positive outcome would indeed occur. But in the present climate of gloom, that's the best hope, both for the citizens of Pakistan and for foreign investors.
Andy Mukherjee is a columnist for Bloomberg News.


Updated : 2021-03-05 03:04 GMT+08:00