Pakistan's calendar is replete with difficult commemorations. But the first anniversary of Benazir Bhutto's death must be accounted among the most perilous of recent years. Always a divisive figure, Ms Bhutto still inspires sharply conflicting passions. With tens of thousands of people converging on the Bhutto family home today to pay their respects, elaborate security precautions will be tested to the full.
For all the despair of one year ago and the doom-laden forecasts for Pakistan that followed, the balance sheet has not been all negative. Ms Bhutto's death, in the midst of a keenly fought election campaign that her party had looked set to win, did not unleash the widespread violence that had been feared. The delayed election brought her People's Party to power.
The country also completed the transition to civilian rule, set in train by President Pervez Musharraf the previous year – even if it did not happen quite as he might have envisaged. Any suspicion that the former general's doffing of his uniform entailed no more than symbolic change was dispelled in August when Mr Musharraf resigned rather than face impeachment. The man who had reluctantly allied himself to Washington's anti-terrorism campaign after 9/11, at considerable risk to his authority at home, had paid a high price for his choice.
It is also worth noting that the government formed after last February's elections remains in power. After looking into the abyss of inter-communal warfare a year ago, Pakistan stepped back from the brink. A result has been a measure of welcome, and – it has to be said – unexpected, political stability in a country that has seen precious little of it down the years.
None of this, however, should obscure the potential for instability and violence that remains. That Ms Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, essentially won the presidency on the back of the prime ministership that would have been hers illustrates the continuing sway of the clan, and the Bhuttos in particular, in Pakistan. The People's Party was, and continues to be, Benazir's party. Prospects for a durable system of civilian party politics remain slim. Each new transition, expected or unexpected, can be a flashpoint.
Nor have Pakistan's new leaders been much more successful than Mr Musharraf in extending the rule of law into the country's more remote corners. The central conflict between the presidency and the judiciary has cooled since Mr Musharraf's departure – though it remains unresolved. And despite the trading of accusations over the bomb attacks in Mumbai, relations with India have generally improved.
But there is still evidence that Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, escapes political oversight. The human rights situation leaves much to be desired. And, despite periodic efforts by the Pakistani army to tackle lawlessness on the frontier with Afghanistan, these tribal areas remain largely out of control. Intermittent air assaults by US forces tend to exacerbate Islamabad's difficulties by exposing the limits of its reach.
Unless President Zardari and his government are able to control the whole territory of Pakistan, however, hopes of stability either internally or externally – and specifically in Afghanistan – are likely to be frustrated. The sad truth is that, one year on, no one has been able to revive Benazir Bhutto's combination of popular appeal and breadth of vision, however flawed. And without it, prospects for regional peace and stability must be dim.Reuse content