Monday, December 31, 2007

Pakistan polls set for delay

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Parliamentary elections seen as key to restoring democracy are set to be postponed for weeks in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination, Pakistani officials said Monday.

A senior government official said that he expected a six-week delay in the elections now slated for Jan. 8, despite calls from Bhutto's party, other opposition politicians and world leaders for the polls to be held on time. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information.

Election Commission Secretary Kanwar Dilashad told reporters that a decision on the timing would be announced on Tuesday, but a recommendation

"has been sent to the government for a delay."

The opposition has accused the commission of favoring President Pervez Musharraf's backers.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the country's most prominent opposition leader, threatened street protests if the vote was delayed.

"We will agitate,"

he told The Associated Press in an interview.

"We will not accept this postponement."

With newly released video footage of Bhutto's killing raising fresh questions about the government's version of how the former prime minister died, accusations of official complicity in the assassination could lead to major electoral gains for her backers and Sharif's. The government has rejected charges of involvement in Bhutto's death.

Western governments are also urging the government not to delay the polls, which they see as a key step in U.S.-backed plans to restore democracy to the nation as it battles Taliban and al-Qaida militants.

Foreign election monitors cautioned, however, that a full observation mission would be impossible if the polls went ahead next week because the unrest had caused them to delay preparations.

"We cannot follow our standard methods if the date stays Jan. 8,"
said Mathias Eick, a spokesman for the European Union-led mission, saying the best it could manage was a limited assessment.

Sharif urged Musharraf to step down immediately and be replaced by a national unity government.

"He is a one-man calamity,"

Sharif told reporters.

"The United States should see that Musharraf has not limited or curbed terrorism. In fact terrorism is now stronger than ever before with more sinister aspects."

Bhutto was killed in a suicide bomb and gun attack on Thursday, but disagreements between her supporters and the government over the precise cause of death are undermining confidence in Musharraf and adding to calls for international investigators to probe the killing.

The new video footage, obtained by Britain's Channel 4, shows a man firing a handgun at Bhutto from close range as she stands up in an open-topped vehicle. Her hair and shawl then move upward, suggesting she may have been shot. She then falls into the vehicle just before an explosion rocks the car.

The government has insisted Bhutto was not hit by any of the bullets and died after the force of the blast slammed her head against the sunroof. Bhutto's family and supporters say she died from gunshot wounds to her head and neck.

Bhutto's husband said late Sunday he refused permission for doctors to perform an autopsy, meaning that short of exhuming her body — something her supporters have already ruled out — the cause of her death will be difficult to establish.

After days of rioting that left at least 44 dead, life in many Pakistani cities began returning to normal, though soldiers and police patrolled many areas. The streets were still quiet in the southern city of Karachi, the scene of some of the worst violence, witnesses said.

The political uncertainty caused the stock markets to tumble on the first day of trading since the killing. The benchmark Karachi Stock Exchange's 100-share index plunged 694.92 points, or 4.7 percent, to 14,077.16 in its biggest single-day loss in points and percentage.

On Sunday, Bhutto's political party named her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Zardari, as its symbolic leader and left day-to-day control to her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, extending Pakistan's most enduring political dynasty. It also appealed to the party of former Prime Minister Sharif to reverse an earlier decision to boycott the polls. Sharif's party later agreed.

The two parties share a common cause now about restoring democracy in Pakistan, but while Sharif is demanding Musharraf's resignation, Zardari left open the possibility of working with the retired general if his party formed the next government.

"We will come to that position when we win the election,"
he told reporters.

The appointment of Zardari as effective leader was not without complications. A former Cabinet minister who spent eight years in prison on corruption accusations, he is known as "Mr. 10 Percent" for allegedly taking kickbacks and is viewed with suspicion by many Pakistanis.

Zardari said the opposition party had no confidence in the government's ability to bring his wife's killers to justice and urged the United Nations to establish a committee like the one investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Several leading U.S. politicians have made similar calls.

The British and U.S. governments had been pushing Bhutto, a moderate Muslim seen as friendly to the West, to form a power-sharing agreement with Musharraf after the election — a combination seen as the most effective in the fight against al-Qaida, which is believed to be regrouping in the country's lawless tribal areas.