Islamabad: Pakistani electoral officials have decided “in principle” to delay the scheduled 8 January election in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last week that sparked turmoil in the nuclear-armed country.
The officials, however, put off a final decision on when the election would be rescheduled until Wednesday. The election commission said it had to consult political parties before announcing a new date.
Uncertainty prevails: A Pakistani man holding Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party flag shouts during a demonstration in Lahore on 29 December.
The opposition leader’s assassination on Thursday triggered bloodshed across the nation and rage against President Pervez Musharraf, casting doubts on Pakistan’s stability and the transition to democratic rule as a country—a frontline ally in US anti-terrorism efforts.
The death toll from violence since Bhutto’s killing had reached 47 by Monday, but on Tuesday the law and order situation was relatively calm. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which can expect to reap a considerable sympathy vote after Bhutto’s murder, and the other main opposition party, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, want the election to go ahead as scheduled. “It is up to the people of Pakistan to choose their future, and the time is now,” Sharif and Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, now co-chairman of her party, along with their 19-year-old son, Bilawal, said in a joint statement. “The 8 January elections must proceed as scheduled. This will not only be a tribute to the memory of Benazir Bhutto, but even more important, a reaffirmation of the cause of democracy for which she died.”
Election commission official Kanwar Dilshad had told reporters earlier on Tuesday that “in principle” the election was being delayed and a new date would be announced on Wednesday.
“We will consult with political parties this evening and announce a date for elections tomorrow,” Dilshad, secretary of the commission said in Islamabad on Tuesday. Dilshad said sticking to the original date would be “difficult.”
Musharraf is expected to make a televised address to the nation at 8 pm on Wednesday, the official Associated Press of Pakistan said.
“The ruling party wants to run away from elections because they know they don’t have a chance of winning,” Farhatullah Babar, a spokesperson for the PPP said in a phone interview.
Siddique-ul-Farooq, a spokesperson for former Prime Minister Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, agreed. “History tells us that dictators always seek to delay elections,” he said in a telephone interview.
The administration of US President George W. Bush made a similar call on Monday, saying the election should be held on schedule or a new date should be announced.
“We do think if the elections can be held in a safe and secure way and in a positive way on 8 January, that’s probably what should happen,” state department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington, DC, on Monday. The election commission’s Dilshad said provincial officials have asked that the voting be delayed until the holy month of Muharram ends in February.
Bhutto’s assassination on 27 December sparked riots in Pakistan’s main cities, resulting in the deaths of as many as 38 people, as her supporters took to the streets, burning offices, shops and cars. Much of the violence was directed against the government of Musharraf.
Rioters caused “colossal” damage across the country, destroying 22 locomotive trains, burning telephone exchanges and damaging election commission offices, the Associated Press of Pakistan cited interim Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro as telling Cabinet ministers.
Bhutto led the PPP after her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed in 1979.
Bhutto’s party rejected government claims that a Taliban commander linked to al-Qaeda was behind the assassination and has demanded an independent investigation.
Following the political turmoil in Pakistan, the country’s key stock index is set for its biggest two-day decline in 1 1/2 years on concern the death of Bhutto last week may cause prolonged political instability and hurt the economy. Oil & Gas Development Co. Ltd, the country’s biggest fuel explorer and the biggest stock on the benchmark index by value, declined by Pakistani Rs3.35, or 2.8%, to Rs116.10. Reuters
Bloomberg contributed to this story.