Après Bhutto

With the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, free elections—as well as democracy itself—are in question in Pakistan.

Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated today at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi, outside Islamabad.

Her death is a major blow for what appeared to be the prevailing U.S. strategy for Pakistan. Washington had hoped to craft a balancing act between its desire for continued security cooperation with Islamabad with its interest in moving its democracy agenda forward. It seemed that a solution had been found-one that would keep General Pervez Musharraf as chief executive (with trusted subordinates remaining in control of the armed forces) to continue the admittedly haphazard cooperation with the United States in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban-but to have Bhutto re-emerge as the face of Pakistani democracy after next month's parliamentary elections.

Now, that approach is in tatters. Musharraf might use the assassination as the rationale for delaying or canceling elections altogether-pointing to the inability to carry out truly free and fair elections in such conditions of instability and extremism. Musharraf's critics, on the other hand, will point to Bhutto's death as proof that the nine years of Musharraf's administration has only further radicalized the population rather than providing outlets for dissent-although it has to be pointed out that local assemblies and the Pakistani press have hardly been restrained.

Washington may be less enthusiastic about former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stepping into the role of the "democratic balancer" to Musharraf, given the belief that he would be less pro-Western and less likely to commit Pakistan to combating Islamist groups on America's behalf (and probably not willing to be more cooperative on Kashmir as well). So the debate will reopen here as to whether to support a Pakistani "process"-even if it brings less than friendly elements into power-or to support people-and whether this means returning to a full embrace of Musharraf, with no power sharing arrangement with civilian politicians whatsoever.

On a separate note, what will be the impact on the U.S. presidential race? Bhutto's murder reinforces the line taken by Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain that we live in a dangerous and unpredictable world-where experience matters and there is no time for "on the job" training. Whether Bhutto's death will find its way into stump speeches is something to keep an eye on.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the editor of The National Interest.