Local experts reflect on Bhutto’s death

Benazir Bhutto knew the safety risks that went with being a public, prominent political figure in Pakistan.But “for her to compete in that political environment, she had to — more or less — show herself,” Penn State professor emeritus Robert LaPorte said Thursday. “She had to be at the rallies.

“She at least publicly stated that she knew full well what the consequences might be,” he went on. “I think history’s judgment of her on that account will be quite favorable. She was a very brave individual to go out there and do that.”

Bhutto, 54, was assassinated Thursday at a campaign rally in the Pakistani town of Rawalpindi.

The daughter of former Pakistani Prime Minster Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she was twice elected — and twice removed — as prime minister of the Muslim country.

She led the Pakistan People’s Party and was a chief opposition leader in the country since emerging from exile earlier this year.

LaPorte, who taught public administration and political science at Penn State, has been to Pakistan 37 times, including this month. He worked in earlier years as a consultant for the U.S. and for the United Nations in Pakistan.

He has studied its government and public policy issues.

Poor Pakistanis had come to see Bhutto as a leader who would “address their needs,” while other supporters saw her as a champion for Pakistani women and for “the fragile democratic base” there, LaPorte said.

But people’s expectations of her, he said, may not have been achievable during her brief time in office.

“A lot of her time, I think, was occupied with dealing with the politics of the time,” LaPorte said. He said both Bhutto and her immediate successor, Nawaz Sharif, had tried to limit the military role in domestic politics.

“That’s a big, big job,” said LaPorte, of Boalsburg. “It’s almost to the point where it’s almost impossible to reduce significantly the role the military might play.”

Craig Baxter, retired as a professor at Juniata College, is a former president of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies. He said the assassination was likely committed by fanatics.

“Fanatics are opposed to women doing anything publicly,” said Baxter, of Huntingdon. “As you can imagine, with some of these Muslim fanatics, for a woman to be president of the government. ... ”

His voice trailed off.

A key question now, Baxter said, centers on who will succeed Bhutto as leader of the largest political party in Pakistan.It may be few days until news on that front begins to stir, he said.

Speculation in the country already suggests that elections scheduled for next month may be postponed. Baxter said postponement would be conceivable but problematic.

Either way, Bhutto’s death will probably not bear any political benefit for sitting President Pervez Musharraf, LaPorte said. Musharraf is angling to retain his power.

What happened to Bhutto “could have happened to (Musharraf),” LaPorte said. “I think, personally, he is genuine in his regret that she was assassinated. And publicly, I don’t he think he wins a lot if these elections are postponed.”

Adam Smeltz can be reached at 231-4631.