TIP SHEET: U.Va. Expert Addresses Impact of Assassination of Pakistani Opposition Leader Benazir Bhutto

Dec. 27, 2007 — The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto Thursday is liable to lead to violence in the short term but a leadership void among democratic forces in the country in the longer term, according to John Echeverri-Gent, associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

Bhutto was assassinated at a political rally in Rawalpindi near the capital, Islamabad. According to various media reports, the former prime minister was shot at close range and was further injured by a suicide bomb blast.

"Rawalpindi is a military center. If Bhutto was going to be secure, she should be most secure in a city like Rawalpindi," Echeverri-Gent said. "This will reflect very poorly on the government of Gen. [Pervez] Musharaff, who had promised her security and who was responsible for her security."

The circumstances of the assassination, Echeverri-Gent said, are apt to create a strong reaction against the government.

"It's not clear what the consequences of this reaction will be," he said. "There is some possibility that Gen. Musharaff will have a more difficult time staying in office."

Elections are scheduled in Pakistan for Jan. 8. Should those proceed as scheduled, Echeverri-Gent says that it is possible that a strong wave of sympathy for Bhutto's death would have an impact on the electoral results for her party, the Pakistan Peoples Party.

"On the other hand, it is the case that the PPP was really a personal vehicle for Benazir Bhutto. She was the headliner of the party, and there is no second political leader who compares with her in terms of stature within the PPP. It's difficult to see how the PPP will carry on without her. The future of the party is very much in question."

In the longer term, Echeverri-Gent said that the assassination removes the leader who had been seen by the Bush administration as representing a more democratic current for Pakistan.

"The Bush administration had pursued the strategy of encouraging an entente between Gen. Musharaff, who in the eyes of the Bush administration represented stability and the possibility of fighting Islamic terrorism in Pakistan, and Benazir Bhutto, who in the Bush administration's eyes represented a more democratic current. The hope was that an alliance would move Pakistan in the direction of a more liberal, democratic and yet secure society.

"That strategy," Echeverri-Gent said, "goes up in smoke at this point."

To discuss the impact of Benazir Bhutto's assassination with Echeverri-Gent, contact Matt Kelly at 434-924-7291, or Jeffery G. Hanna at 434-243-2070.