After Bhutto

It has taken less than a week for the tragedy of Benazir Bhutto's assassination to segue into the farce of a potentially disastrous dynastic succession. The slain former prime minister, a woman of enormous strengths and flaws, certainly had the legitimacy to be Pakistan's preeminent opposition leader. Her successors, a notoriously corrupt husband and a sheltered 19-year-old son, do not. Neither is qualified to lead a nuclear-armed nation of 165 million citizens, many of them understandably angry and demoralized.

There are now suggestions that Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party may split. This would not be a bad thing. The pro-democracy wing of the party must reject the regency of Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, best known in Pakistan as "Mr. 10%" for his alleged take from every government contract signed during his wife's premiership. It cannot make common cause with the pro-dynastic wing of the party, for whom worship of the Bhutto pseudo-monarchy trumps the democratic and progressive values that Benazir Bhutto tried to personify.

If the PPP lacks for charismatic leaders, it is because Bhutto herself allowed no rivals to rise. The party must now set about identifying and promoting a new generation of political talent. There is room for hope in that regard. The recent revolt of the Pakistani lawyers against the imposition of emergency rule spotlighted the courage of thousands of pro-democracy activists willing to go to jail for their belief in the rule of law.

However belatedly, the Bush administration should also seize this moment to get on the right side of history in Pakistan. Its ignominious plan to keep Pervez Musharraf in the presidency while ushering in the popular Bhutto to serve as prime minister is now in ruins. Whether or not Musharraf's government was culpable or negligent in Bhutto's death, its handling of the assassination has created grave doubts about its intentions. The government's ham-handed attempts to silence the doctors who treated Bhutto, its highly dubious claim that she was not shot but died because she hit her head on the sunroof of her SUV, the emergence of a video apparently showing a man firing a pistol at Bhutto, and the scandalous decision by a police chief to refuse the hospital's request for an autopsy do not lend themselves to benign interpretation.

There is no question of the Pakistani government investigating itself. The Bush administration should immediately endorse calls for an international inquiry into Bhutto's assassination, just as it backed the establishment of a special United Nations tribunal to investigate the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Failure to do so would send the message that Americans only support justice in cases in which the suspected perpetrators are not U.S. allies -- Syria in the case of the Hariri killing.

The United States has little political leverage to show for its billions of dollars in military aid to Musharraf -- much of which has allegedly been diverted from the struggle against Islamist jihadists to the struggle against India. But it can and should refuse to recognize sham elections that would give Musharraf a fake mandate. Washington should insist as a condition of future aid that Musharraf allow genuinely free and fair elections. These will by no means ensure Pakistan's political stability, but the alternative is incalculably worse.

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