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Election delay likely in Pakistan creating new standoff after Bhutto slaying

Election delay likely in Pakistan creating new standoff after Bhutto slaying

Parliamentary elections in Pakistan are set to be postponed by several weeks despite opposition demands they go ahead as planned on Jan. 8, officials said Monday, setting up a new political stand off in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination.
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."
Western governments are urging the government to go ahead with the polls without major delays. They see the elections as a key step in U.S.-backed plans to restore democracy to the nation as it battles Taliban and al-Qaida militants.
The parties of Bhutto and Sharif both feel they may benefit at the polls amid widespread sympathy at Bhutto's killing last week at a campaign rally and accusations that political allies of President Pervez Musharraf had a role in the murder.
But political instability and the technical challenges of holding the vote after nationwide riots following the killing led to widespread expectations that the balloting will be delayed.
The Election Commission, which critics say is stacked with officials loyal to Musharraf, said it had recommended to the government an unspecified delay, but would announce its final decision on Tuesday.
A senior government official predicted the elections would be postponed by "six weeks or so as the environment to hold free and fair elections is not conducive." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the information.
Foreign election monitors cautioned that a full observation mission would be "impossible" if the polls went ahead next week because the unrest had disturbed their preparations. "We cannot follow our standard methods if the date stays January 8," said Mathias Eick, a spokesman for the E.U.-led mission, saying the best it could manage was a limited "assessment" of the polls.
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.
Sharif, who was toppled by Musharraf then exiled for seven years before his return to Pakistan in November, intensified his attacks on the U.S-backed former general, saying that a free and fair vote would be impossible so long as he remained president.
"He is a one man calamity," he said in his hometown of Lahore. "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."
The United States had hoped that Bhutto, a liberal Muslim popular in the west, would become prime minister after the elections and enter into some form of power-sharing agreement with Musharraf _ a combination seen as the most potent force against al-Qaida and Taliban militants in the country.
Sharif said if his party won the vote it would not work with Musharraf, suggesting any new government may be shortlived.
"You want me to work with such a man? He is the root cause of all the problems in the country," he said.
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, a former Cabinet minister accused of massive corruption during Bhutto's time as prime minister.
Zardari, who has accused Musharraf of responsibility for his wife's murder by failing to provide proper security for her, did not rule out the possibility of cooperating with the president if his party was in a position to form the next government.
"We will come to that position when we win the election," he told reporters.
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Matthew Rosenberg contributed to this report from Lahore.


Updated : 2021-04-10 22:10 GMT+08:00