Leading article: The stakes are too high for Pakistan to veer off the road to democracy

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Whether al-Qa'ida was responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the intentions of those behind this murder are hardly difficult to discern: to destabilise further the Pakistani state; to push Pakistan out of the American orbit; to force the political parties and the Musharraf government to turn inwards and against one another; and, as a result of all that, to see the parliamentary elections planned for 8 January deferred indefinitely.

The violence has already begun, and figures such as Imran Khan are openly asking why President Musharraf hadn't ensured Ms Bhutto's safety. He might have done more it is always possible to do so but the frequency and determination of the attacks on her meant her life was always going to be in peril. She was, as has been noted many times now, a brave woman. General Musharraf and the military have made little secret of their partiality for the Pakistan Muslim League; they ought not have done so, and it was a manoeuvre that has backfired rather badly.

Longer term, the prize for Ms Bhutto's murderers must be to see Pakistan slowly turn into a backward, fundamentalist regime modelled on the Taliban's insane, cruel rule in Afghanistan only this time a nuclear state occupying a still more vital strategic position. Perennial tensions with India and proximity to yet another nuclear power, China, are no doubt also viewed by the terrorists as full of potential for troublemaking.

Were Pakistan, long an American ally, and her weaponry to fall into the wrong hands, it would be the ultimate mark of failure of George Bush's foreign policy, and without question one of the greatest foreign policy reverses for the United States since the end of the Second World War. It is difficult, for example, to see the "loss" of Cuba, Vietnam or even Iraq in the same league as the collapse of Pakistan into a hostile, fractured, failed state. The stakes, for the West almost as much as Pakistan, could scarcely be higher.

Of all those grim possibilities, the most pressing to deal with is the timing of the general election. Given the trauma that has befallen Pakistan and the grievous blow to Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), it would be understandable if the elections were called off, allowing the nation's wounds to begin to heal and the PPP to select a new leadership.

A postponement of a few weeks would not offer the terrorists a huge victory in real terms. It is perfectly possible, for example, that the PPP would be even more likely to win power and begin the difficult task of rebuilding the integrity of Pakistan. The heirs of Bhutto, while lacking her charisma and appeal, would pursue the same policies, and an approach that offers the best hope for Pakistan's future, no matter when the election happens.

However, the case for going ahead on 8 January is a powerful one. It lies, in truth, mostly in its symbolism, but against the evil symbolism of this murder, such things matter. It is obviously not the ideal backdrop, but the test of democracy is how resilient it proves when events threaten it most.

To postpone the election would make the democrats in Pakistan look as though they were running scared, and offer the terrorists an additional incentive to step up their campaign of violence to see successive elections disrupted and postponed. Pakistan has waited long enough to go to the polls; when the mourning is over, she must face the future.

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