The assassination of Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is likely to call into question the future of democracy in Pakistan as well as the country's role in fighting terrorism in the region, several international policy experts told ABC News.
Bhutto was shot Thursday in the neck and the chest by a suicide bomber who later blew himself up, killing at least another 20 people, as she left a rally for her Pakistan People's Party. She had just finished addressing thousands in advance of the country's Jan. 8 parliamentary elections.
Current Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has yet to decide whether the elections will be postponed.
"The fact that the election could be delayed and a major candidate has been killed makes it very difficult to go ahead with establishing the impression that Pakistan has at last returned to a democratic process," said Joe Elder, professor of sociology and a specialist on Pakistan at the University of Wisconsin. "This is a very serious blow to the democratic process in Pakistan."
The upcoming election had been a hopeful sign to the rest of the world that democracy would finally be restored to Pakistan.
"For the last six or seven years there's been very little evidence of a democratic process in Pakistan," said Elder. "It looked like there was finally going to be an election that was going to amount to something."
With Pakistan as the U.S.'s closest ally in fighting terrorism in the region, Bhutto's assassination will likely complicate the relationship between the two countries.
"The U.S. alliance with Pakistan had been difficult for many years, and it hasn't helped that we're asking Pakistan to play a major role on the Afghan border, especially with Pakistan not appearing very democratic," said Elder. "The delay of the democratic process makes it difficult for the U.S. to know how much support to give Musharraf or the Pakistani government until things settle down."
Bhutto was known for being extremely well-educated and articulate. She routinely spoke out against terrorism, and she believed Pakistan should work toward eliminating it in the future.
In the hours after her death, it was unclear whether her assassination may hinder Pakistan's future anti-terrorism efforts.
"The principal concern of the U.S. government has been trying to control the Taliban and al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Robert LaPorte Jr., professor emeritus of public administration and political science at Pennsylvania State University. "How [Bhutto's] assassination will affect Pakistan's willingness to cooperate with the U.S. in terms of terrorism is hard to say."
Pakistanis in America Mourn
For Pakistani-Americans, Bhutto's assassination is yet another reminder of the country's struggle with democracy and fair elections.
"Her assassination is a major tragedy," said Irfan Malik, head of the National Association of Pakistani Americans. "She was a popular leader and it was an opportunity to bring democracy to Pakistan, and sadly, this will delay that process."
Pakistanis want fair elections, Malik explained, and believe that a democratic election would align the interests of Pakistanis with the interests of both the Pakistani government and the U.S. government. Malik said that currently many Pakistanis feel overlooked by the two governments.
"Right now [the Pakistani government] is aligned to the interests of the U.S., not of the Pakistani people," said Malik. "You need a government in Pakistan that is democratically elected [so Pakistanis] can be aligned with their government, and then the U.S. will follow."
"The only thing that I want as a Pakistani-American is to have the country flourish and have a democracy," added Malik. "The election would be a step forward, but this assassination is not two but three steps backward."
Pakistan's Future: More Violence?
A statement by Musharraf in which he blamed terrorists for the assassination and vowed to find whoever was responsible evidently did little to quell Pakistanis, many of whom erupted in violence following Bhutto's assassination, setting fire to cars, trains and posters bearing Musharraf's image.
The violence might only get worse as more Pakistanis turn against the government, said Rick Barton, co-director of the bipartisan Washington-based Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project, which recently completed a report on the relationship between Pakistan and the United States.
"There will probably be larger street demonstrations and more public expression," said Barton. "[The assassination] shows that Musharraf isn't really in control, and while some will hold him responsible for the actual assassination, others will see it as a sign of lack of social order, and that it was really impossible to protect [Bhutto] all along.
"These are catalyzing events that affirm that the authorities aren't in charge," Barton continued.
The assassination may be interpreted by Pakistanis as an opportunity to conduct similar attacks in the future, said Elder, a professor who covers Pakistan in his courses.
"I would expect things to become more violent," said Elder. "Once this kind of attack occurs and is successful, it's tempting for others to try similar tactics on other candidates."
For Pakistani Americans, said Malik, the thought that future candidates might feel too threatened to campaign makes the assassination an even greater blow to the success of democracy in Pakistan.
"Other parties will be scared for their safety, and may not be willing to come out in the open and address people," said Malik. "Pakistanis want elections, democracy, but they want fair elections."