It was a decidedly odd moment. On Thursday, within hours of Benazir Bhutto's assassination, State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters in Washington that his boss, Condoleezza Rice, had quickly made two calls. One was to Bhutto's bereaved husband, Asif Ali Zardari. Rice's other call, Casey said, was to the man he called Bhutto's "successor," Amin Fahim, the vice chairman of her Pakistan Peoples Party. Casey couldn't even quite master this obscure politician's name, but he said, "I'll leave it up to Mr. Amin Fahir—Fahim—as the new head of the Pakistan People's Party to determine how that party is going to participate in the electoral process."
The problem is, nobody but the State Department—especially not the political elites in Pakistan, even those within Bhutto's own party—sees Fahim in such a role, and certainly not so soon. Critics suggest that the administration is so eager to graft legitimacy onto President Pervez Musharraf, its ever-more-unpopular ally in the war on terror, that it is pressing too hard to move past Bhutto and continue with scheduled Jan. 8 parliamentary elections, even though riots are paralyzing the country. "They're trying to rush everything. This is a disaster," says Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Depratment official and current scholar at the Middle East Institute. "This is now our new game plan: We're working out a deal between Fahim and Musharraf after the election. They mention Fahim because they don't know any better. The fact is, she [Bhutto] didn't trust him."
Pakistani political experts tend to agree with Weinbaum. Although Fahim was sitting next to Bhutto in her SUV when she died, "he's not the successor," says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat and scholar who was very close to Bhutto and knows many within the party. "He's respected. He has a constituency. But he's not a charismatic figure" like Bhutto. In fact, given the dynastic politics of Pakistan, the person who succeeds her is far more likely to be her husband, Zardari, the former Karachi playboy and polo star who is widely blamed for the tangle of corruption that strangled and cut short Bhutto's two terms in office. (Zardari was labeled "Mr. 10 Percent" in the Pakistani press because of the commissions and kickbacks he allegedly demanded from contractors doing business with the Pakistani government.) A long shot PPP candidate to succeed Bhutto might be Aitzaz Ahsan, who personally engineered the reinstatement of sacked Supreme Court Chief Justice Chaudhry earlier this year. Ahsan, however, was known to have broken with Bhutto over her decision to hold tentative talks with Musharraf about a coalition government and is considered to have too little support inside the party.
With emotions still so raw, no one knows whether anyone can even begin to fill the void that Bhutto left behind. Casey told Newsweek Friday that he had misspoken on Thursday when he named Fahim as Bhutto's successor. "That's my mistake," Casey said. "That's technically inaccurate. He is the nominal interim head of the party. But God knows it may not be, in the end, a single person. There isn't a single one who stands out right now. My own personal thought on this is they may end up with something like India's Congress Party, where Sonia Gandhi is head of [the] party but doesn't lead the ticket." Casey added, "U.S. policy isn't to anoint candidates or pick leaders for Pakistan."
Even so, a day after Bhutto's death, the administration continued to push for the scheduled Jan. 8 elections, though the Pakistani military was out in force and the other leading political candidate in the country, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had announced he was boycotting the vote. Even key international monitors such as the Washington-based International Republican Institute said they had decided not to participate. "Our decision is based upon the uncertainty of the election itself, the fact that Nawaz Sharif's party is boycotting, and the uncertainty for the security of our delegates," IRI official Tom Garrett said. "I notice that even one of the governing coalition parties is calling for a postponement." (He was referring to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.)
Shortly before her death, Bhutto herself had suspected that the elections would be rigged in favor of Musharraf's party. Further complicating matters, her supporters bitterly disputed the government's official account of her death. The Interior Ministry swiftly blamed the assassination on Baitullah Mehsud, the same Islamist militant it named as the culprit behind the Oct. 18 bombing that almost killed her on the day of her return (that investigation remains unsolved). But mistrust of Musharraf's government runs so deep that, according to sources within the party, at a meeting this Sunday, the PPP is expected to call for a U.N. special investigation similar to the probe into the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Thousands of Bhutto supporters continued to riot on Friday, ransacking and torching the homes of former ministers of the ruling party as well as offices. There were even rumors—perhaps wishful thinking by PPP insiders—that some of Musharraf's key aides, sensing that he may no longer be able to exercise control, were advising him to resign and hand over his position to a PPP nominee to head his or her own government of national consensus.
Despite all these uncertainties, when Rice was asked Friday whether the Jan. 8 elections should remain on schedule, she replied only that it was "very important that the democratic process go forward." What Rice really meant, some of her critics said, was that the administration is desperate to find another tool to replace Bhutto and shore up Musharraf. In her condolence call to Zardari, Bhutto's husband, Rice suggested that he should push for Jan. 8 elections and have the PPP take part.
Speaking for Rice, Casey on Friday added some nuance to the official support for the scheduled elections. "If they can do it on the 8th in a way that is safe and smooth and will meet basic international standards, then by all means they should," he told Newsweek. "But if ... there's strong feeling they want to do a postponement, that's acceptable, too. I do think it would be a bad thing if there was a decision to postpone the election—period." However, Casey added that there were no meetings at the State Department he knew of to discuss new rules that might ensure that coming elections be any more "free and fair" than before—especially to ensure that the banned Sharif is allowed to run and that local election officials in the Punjab, where most seats are up for grabs, don't rig the vote. "I'm not aware that anyone has come up with a list of specific suggestions about how those elections ought to proceed," Casey said.
This is not the first time the U.S. government has been quick to anoint an "elected" ally without fully understanding that elections that are not legitimate only undermine faith in the outcome and in U.S. advice. In the fall of 2002, when Musharraf finally held parliamentary elections three years after his bloodless coup, Islamist fundamentalists won a surprising number of seats. U.S. officials swallowed hard but lauded the elections as "fair and square." But an election observer from the European Union, John Cushnahan, pointed out that there were "serious flaws" in the elections—Musharraf's government had unfairly directed state resources to his party and created laws intended to prevent Bhutto and Sharif from taking part. Washington was noticeably silent on this point. Bhutto, the former prime minister, could not even get in to see anyone at the White House at the time. "The Bush administration has been so sold on Musharraf for so long," says former diplomat Haqqani. "On the one hand, they want to promote democracy; on the other, they don't want to deal with democrats in other countries."
At Rice's urging, Bhutto earlier this year agreed to take part in the parliamentary elections, with the understanding that the Pakistani president would keep his part of the bargain by permitting her, a twice-elected prime minister, to serve for a third term (which was banned by a technical rule). Instead, Musharraf did nothing to change the law and instead declared emergency rule—a decision that President Bush did not immediately denounce. Nor did the Americans push Musharraf on the other aspects of the deal that would have allowed her to be a three-time prime minister. "The Americans left her high and dry," says a close Bhutto ally who requested anonymity when discussing diplomatic issues. "They did not keep their word." America wants an ally in Pakistan—but with U.S. credibility in the country so low, Washington would be better off not trying to name any successors.