The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has left a huge political vacuum at the heart of this nuclear-armed state, which appears to be slipping into an abyss of violence and Islamic extremism. The question of what happens next is almost impossible to answer, especially at a moment when Bhutto herself seemed to be the only answer.
Pakistanis are in shock. Many are numb, and others are filled with unimaginable grief. Thousands have taken to the streets, burning vehicles and attacking police stations in an explosion of violence against the government. Bhutto's death yesterday will almost certainly lead to the cancellation of the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections (already, the nation's second-largest opposition party has called for a boycott if the vote is held) and the possible imposition of extraordinary measures by the military -- another state of emergency or even martial law. President Pervez Musharraf's own political future has never been less certain.
Bhutto's death leaves the largest possible vacuum at the core of Pakistan's shaky and blood-stained political system. Twice elected prime minister in the 1990s, twice dismissed on charges of corruption and incompetence by the military, Bhutto was a giant of a politician in a land of political pygmies and acolytes of the military.
Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party were the closest anyone in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has ever gotten to espousing a secular, democratic political culture. In a country where political advances have been made recently only by the Taliban, the role Bhutto filled, trying to bring modernity to this nation of 165 million people, was immensely brave and absolutely necessary if Pakistan is to remain in the polity of nations. Whatever her shortcomings, she loved her country and gave her life for it.
She and her party commanded the die-hard loyalty of at least one-third of the electorate. Her supporters were vehemently against army rule and Islamic extremism.
In recent weeks, she had publicly taken on the Taliban extremists -- something Musharraf has not dared to do, despite all his bluster and bonhomie with President Bush since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. With Bhutto gone, there is no one who can play such a role.
Her longest-running battle was not with the extremists but with the army, whose leaders never trusted her. She was too secular, too worldly and perhaps too wise. Bhutto was killed leaving a political rally in Rawalpindi, just two miles from where her father, prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by another military dictator 30 years ago. The tragedy of the Bhutto family -- her brothers also were killed, one poisoned, one shot, and her husband spent seven years in prison -- has become part of the saga and struggle by Pakistanis to create a viable democratic, modern state.
Yesterday, her party's stalwarts were on the streets, accusing Musharraf and the military of perpetrating the latest murder of a Bhutto. That is extremely unlikely, not least because last night the government itself was in despair.
The attack -- a gunman cut her down before a suicide-bomb explosion blew up her vehicle, early reports suggest -- bore the hallmarks of training by the al-Qaeda terrorists ensconced in northwest Pakistan.
Her death only exacerbates the problems Pakistan has been grappling with for the past few months: how to find a modicum of political stability through a representative government that the army can accept and will not work to undermine, and how to tackle the extremism spreading in the country.
If the elections are canceled, it is imperative that Musharraf drop his single-minded desire for power and establish a national government made up of all the country's leading politicians and parties. Together, they may agree on how to conduct an orderly election while trying to beat back the specter of extremism that is haunting this benighted land. But Musharraf may not survive the fallout of Bhutto's death. His actions have not been honorable, and none of the political opposition is willing to sit down with him. It is unlikely that they will accept Musharraf's continued presidency.
If rioting and political mayhem worsen, if the opposition refuses to cooperate with Musharraf and the United States finally begins to distance itself from him, then the army may be forced to tell Musharraf to call it a day. If that happens, it will be even more urgent that the world support a national government, elections and a speedy return to civilian rule -- and not another military dictatorship.
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and the author of Taliban and Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia.