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Salman Taseer assassination points to Pakistani extremists' mounting power

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The governor of Pakistan's wealthiest and most populated province was shot dead Tuesday by one of his bodyguards who told interrogators he was angry over the politician's opposition to blasphemy laws.

"The governor of Punjab was the bravest person in our government, and the stands he took for women, minorities and on the blasphemy law were incredibly brave and will never be forgotten," Farahnaz Ispahani, a Zardari spokeswoman, said in an interview.

Taseer, who began his political career as a PPP student activist, was a successful businessman who played polo and smoked heavily. With his flashy sunglasses and frequent Twitter dispatches, Taseer cut a rather shocking figure in a country dominated by conservative social mores.

Critics assailed him for fathering a child with an Indian journalist while he was still married to the mother of his other children. In 2008, minor scandals broke out when opponents published photos online of him holding wine glasses at parties and of one of his daughters wearing shorts and dancing.

Despite the alleged gunman's confession, Taseer's killing was sure to be swept up in the conspiracy theories that permeate Pakistani politics, particularly in times of turmoil. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said investigators would seek to determine whether the suspect acted alone or was "asked" to carry out the attack.

In the hours after the killing, some criticism centered on the PML-N-led Punjab government, which provided Taseer's police guard. There was no indication Tuesday night that the party played a role.

But the PML-N might yet bring down the PPP, whose government faces growing criticism over corruption, a floundering economy and a ham-handed response to last year's devastating floods. The ruling party's coalition partner, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, withdrew from the government Sunday, weakening its mandate by depriving it of a parliamentary majority.

A united opposition could pass a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, leading to his ouster and potentially triggering early elections. That has appeared unlikely, because of divisions among opposition parties. But Sharif threatened Tuesday to "ask the opposition parties to come forward and we will give them our full support" if the government does not show progress on reforms within 45 days, according to the Associated Press.

Like many in the PPP, Taseer often criticized opposition parties for stoking political instability in a country that has been ruled by the military for half its 63-year history and where an elected government has never completed its term.

Religious extremism, Taseer said last summer, would be quashed only by the "continuous, functional position of a democratic system."

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report. Special Correspondent Aoun Sahi contributed to this report from Lahore.


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