What died with Benazir Bhutto?
It's not what the assassination of Benazir Bhutto signifies in particular that matters: her merits as an individual political figure are debatable. It's what her death means in general that's most dangerous. Lisa Curtis of The Heritage Foundation described what was expected from elections in Pakistan in which Bhutto was scheduled to take part:
President Pervez Musharraf's best chance for dealing successfully with threats from radical Islamists lies in enforcing the rule of law against the anti-democratic vigilantes in Islamabad and militants in the tribal border areas and taking a conciliatory approach toward Pakistani civilian leaders who support a democratic, progressive vision for Pakistan. If a free and fair election is held with the full participation of the mainstream secular parties, they are likely to win, thereby striking a blow against religious extremists.
In other words, the elections were supposed to blaze the narrow path between political extremisms. That path has been demolished by high explosive for now. The NYT writes: "the attack immediately raised questions about whether parliamentary elections scheduled for January will go ahead or be postponed."
There were already questions about whether Bhutto -- or any other candidate -- could create a political alternative to the dilemma of rule by the Army or rule by the Taliban. Walter Rodgers, in the Christian Science Monitor wrote only a few days ago, when the elections seemed certain to occur that whoever won, the Army would win and democracy would lose:
It now seems probable that Pakistan will hold parliamentary elections Jan. 8. It seems just as likely the result may be little more than a reshuffling of familiar faces that will not result in the institutional changes needed to put this Islamic republic on the doorstep of democracy.
The leaders of both major opposition parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, talk about nudging this nation of 165 million toward genuine democratic government. Yet both are already forecasting that Pakistan's intelligence services and the Army will rig the elections against them and for President Pervez Musharraf's candidates.
Now there will not even be the semblance of an electoral outcome. The effect of political assassination is to restrict effective political discourse to argument by high explosive or supersonic lead projectiles. Political murder kills not only the candidates, but the process to which they belong. Pakistani politics might not miss Benazir Bhutto as an individual, but it will surely want for the elections in general.
Elections have rarely been able in and of themselves to bring about stable democratic rule. Normally things are the other way round. It is the existence of the elements of democracy that have brought elections into existence. Whether those elements now exist in Pakistan is the question. Rogers believed that until Pakistan had an educated citizenry, credible legal culture, a semblance of upright government and a degree of religious tolerance that any electoral process would be founded upon an insubstantial base.
He might have added that meaningful elections can occur only when the armies -- in this case the Pakistani Army and the armed Islamic militants -- are committed to the processes of democracy. When every group under arms within a society is determined to settle the question of power by combat the role for the ballot is small indeed. The next few days will show whether the Pakistani Army -- for it will surely not be the Taliban -- can rededicate itself to electoral democracy. Pakistan needs its George Washington. Unfortunately it only has its Pervez Musharraf.