- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

ISLAMABAD | Tens of thousands of Pakistanis on Saturday gathered at the tomb of Benazir Bhutto and at the site of her assassination to mourn the former prime minister amid lingering questions over the government’s ability to combat terrorism and enact democratic reforms.

Mrs. Bhutto’s death brought political turmoil to the nation of 160 million people and thwarted U.S. hopes for stability in the country that serves as a base both for the war on terrorism and for militants menacing Pakistan and the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

Much of the concern has focused on Mrs. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who took charge of her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and in September replaced Gen. Pervez Musharraf as president.

Retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood said Pakistan is facing a “leadership vacuum.”

“There are serious leadership crises in Pakistan,” he said. “The country is becoming ungovernable. Militants are becoming more and more powerful. Benazir Bhutto could have done very well if she was alive.”

Gen. Masood said Mr. Zardari is unable to handle the rising tension with India after last month’s terrorist attacks, in which Indian officials say a group with ties to Pakistan killed 171 people in Mumbai. Mr. Zardari has pledged to take action against any Pakistani elements involved in the attack.

“There is lack of leadership in the power structure,” Gen. Masood said. “The methodology of Zardari is wrong. He is incorrect and inefficient to handle the situation. Tension with India is worsened due to absence of leadership.”

On Friday, Pakistani military officials announced they were redeploying thousands of troops to the country’s border with India. Mr. Zardari did not mention the troop movement during his remarks on Saturday, but he said Pakistan is not a failed state, conceding instead that it is “afflicted with the cancer of terrorism,” which should be cured through democracy.

“We will cure it; we will solve it; we will correct it,” he said.

Political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais agreed that Mrs. Bhutto could have steered the country away from the escalating crisis with India.

“She had gained a personal stature, credibility and respect among the international community. Not only in Pakistan, but around the world, she was very popular. She had become the identity of Pakistan in the world,” he said.

Mr. Rais said Mr. Zardari “played his cards very well” and consolidated his political position, but lacks popularity and credibility among the masses - largely because of charges of corruption that have swirled since the 1990s when he served as a minister for investments and the environment in Mrs. Bhutto’s government.

“I consider Zardari an accidental leader,” Mr. Rais said. “He was forced to be in the present position because of the situation after Bhutto’s death. He jumped into the present situation to preserve the legacy of the Bhutto family. He has done very well to consolidate his own political position. However, he is not well-connected with the people.”

Some opponents also question Mr. Zardari’s commitment to democracy, citing as an example the lack of movement on the charter of democracy.

Signed in May 2006, the pact between Mrs. Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who heads the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), outlined steps to end military rule by holding free and fair elections and restoring an independent judiciary, among other things.

“Implementation of the charter of democracy will be the best tribute to Benazir Bhutto on her first death anniversary,” Mr. Sharif said.

The agreement, which was highly commended as a step toward restoration of genuine democracy, has languished despite the fact that both the PPP and the PML-N were victorious in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.

Mr. Zardari on Saturday said that democracy in Pakistan is the result of the dream of Mrs. Bhutto.

“We will take the country forward on the path of progress and prosperity by following the philosophy and mission of Benazir Bhutto,” he told mourners - some sobbing and beating their chests - on Saturday at Mrs. Bhutto’s mausoleum in Ghari Khuda Bakhsh.

Mrs. Bhutto, a symbol of liberal and secular democracy and a strong opponent of Islamic extremism, had been seeking her third term as prime minister. But she was fatally shot after she addressed an election rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Many of the mourners on Saturday demonstrated their affection for her, some walking for hundreds of miles in the bitter Pakistani winter to her family mausoleum, where they jostled for a chance to kiss her grave or toss rose petals.

Mr. Rais said Pakistan would have been in better hands had Mrs. Bhutto lived.

“Pakistan would have progressed towards a genuine democracy and would be in a much better shape, both domestically and externally, if Benazir was alive,” he said.

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