Bhutto's death has averted a mullah-military Pakistan

By Shashi Tharoor, the author of The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone and a former UN under-secretary general (THE GUARDIAN, 04/01/08):

Benazir Bhutto has never looked so good. This week has seen the international press apotheosising the telegenic Pakistani politician. But the widely expressed view that Bhutto epitomised Pakistan's hopes for democracy, which have now perished with her, seriously overstates what she represented and the implications of her demise.The principal consequence of Bhutto's death is the setback it has dealt to the United States-inspired plan to anoint her, after not-quite free-and-fair elections, as the acceptable civilian face of the continuing rule of Pervez Musharraf. The calculations were clear: Musharraf was a valuable ally of the west against the Islamist threat in the region, but his continuing indefinitely to rule Pakistan as a military dictator was becoming an embarrassment. The former Chief Martial Law Administrator had to doff his uniform - long overdue, since he was three years past the retirement age for any general - and find a credible civilian partner to help make a plausible case for democratisation.

Benazir Bhutto, after years of exile in Dubai and London, was the chosen one. She was well-spoken, well-networked in Washington and London, and passionate in her avowals of secular moderation. The other exiled civilian former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was none of these things, and having been the victim of General Musharraf's coup, was considerably less inclined to cooperate with his defenestrator.

Bhutto's first two stints had, however, been inglorious. From 1988-90, she had been overawed by the military establishment, whose appointed president duly dismissed her from office on plausible charges of corruption, mainly involving her husband, who had acquired the nickname Mr Ten Percent. Her second innings (1993-96) was, if anything, worse: charges of rampant peculation - and administrative ad-hockery - mounted, even as her avowedly moderate government orchestrated the creation of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan. This time it was a president of Pakistan from her own party, one whose election she herself had engineered, who felt obliged to dismiss her. To assume that the third time would have been any different requires a leap of faith explicable only by the mounting international anxiety over Musharraf's fraying rule.

But Bhutto's true merit lay in the absence of plausible alternatives. She was no great democrat - as her will, naming her 19-year-old son to inherit her party, has confirmed. The Bhuttoist ethos is a uniquely Pakistani combination of aristocratic feudalism and secular populism. To her, democracy was a means to power, not a philosophy of politics. But the same was true of the other contenders in Pakistan's political space - the conservative Punjabi bourgeoisie represented by Nawaz Sharif, the moderate pro-militarists grouped around Musharraf, the deeply intolerant Islamists, and the assorted regionalist and particularist parties whose appeal is limited to specific provinces. Musharraf knew all that elections would ensure was a temporary rearrangement of the balance of forces among these diverse elements. But it would enable him to remain in charge as a "civilian" president while portraying his Pakistan - more credibly than heretofore - as the last bastion of democratic moderation in the face of the Islamist menace.

Democrats around the world may well believe the Pakistani people deserve better, but it is difficult to imagine a viable alternative to such a scenario. The central fact of Pakistani politics has always been the power of the military, which has ruled the country for 32 of its 60 years of existence. In other countries, the state has an army; in Pakistan, the army has a state. The military can be found not only in all the key offices of government but also running real estate and import-export ventures and petrol pumps and factories. Retired generals head most of the country's universities and thinktanks. The proportion of national resources devoted to the military is perhaps the highest in the world. Every once in a while, a great surge of disillusionment with the generals pours out into the streets and a "democratic" leader is voted into office, but the civilian experiment always ends badly and the military returns to power - to widespread relief. The British political scientist WH Morris-Jones famously observed that the only political institutions in Pakistan are the coup and the mob. Neither offers propitious grounds for believing that an enduring democracy is around the corner.

The elections that Benazir Bhutto might have won have now been postponed, but they will take place eventually, because they represent the only safety valve in the pressure cooker that Pakistan is today. Her party will benefit from a sympathy vote, but in the absence of a charismatic leader it will be obliged to come to an accommodation with the generals. Despite widespread anger at Musharraf's failure to protect Bhutto, this may actually be the best outcome for Pakistan. The Islamists, who have never won more than 10% of the popular vote, may fare even worse in the aftermath of Bhutto's killing: most people assume her killers were religious fundamentalists. The other suspects - Islamist sympathisers in the Pakistani military, of whom there are many in key positions (notably in the Inter-Services Intelligence, the ISI) - will also be on the defensive in the face of popular fury at Bhutto's murder.

The great danger in Pakistan has always been in the risk of a mullah-military coalition. The prospect of the uniformed rulers of this nuclear-armed state being infused with the zealotry of the Islamic fanatics among their compatriots has always sent shudders down the spines of the world's chancelleries. The death of Benazir Bhutto, and the backlash it has engendered, has made that less likely for now, and that may remain her most significant legacy.