Pakistan elections hang in the balance

Pakistani officials were to meet on Monday to decide the fate of scheduled January 8 elections, after Benazir Bhutto’s party announced it would contest the vote despite her assassination.

The vote, seen as a key step in the nuclear-armed nation’s transition back to democracy after eight years of military rule, has been thrown into disarray by her slaying and the wave of deadly unrest that followed.

With the three-day mourning period now over and the country slowly inching back to normal, the big question is whether elections are still viable.

Bhutto’s party named her 19-year-old son, Bilawal, as its new leader on Sunday, extending the family’s grip on the leadership into a third generation after an emergency meeting at their ancestral home in the south.

He is a student at Britain’s Oxford University and a political novice, and analysts believe real power will lie with Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari, a controversial figure who has been mired in corruption allegations.

Their decision to contest the parliamentary vote persuaded Nawaz Sharif—the other key opposition leader and, like Bhutto, a two-time former premier—to renounce his earlier boycott and rejoin the fray.

“My mother always said that democracy is the best revenge,” Bilawal Bhutto told a chaotic press conference in Naudero in southern Pakistan.

“The party’s long and historic struggle for democracy will continue with a new vigour.”

Whether the election commission will agree is another matter.

It conceded on Saturday that the unrest following Bhutto’s death in a gun and suicide bomb attack last Thursday had “adversely affected” preparations.

The commission said an election official had been killed, voter lists and its offices in some areas set alight and other preparations left in chaos.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Q party backing President Pervez Musharraf said on Sunday it was suspending campaigning and suggested a delay to the vote.

“We have suspended our campaign because of the prevailing situation,” said party spokesperson Tariq Azim. “Keeping everything in mind, a delay of 10 to 12 weeks is realistic.”

Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party rejected any delay.

“We will not accept any postponement of the elections and we want them as per schedule by January 8,” Senator Safdar Abbasi said.

Violence

Bhutto’s assassination triggered violence that has left at least 38 people dead and seen protesters clash with police and torch hundreds of banks, shop, offices, railway stations, trains and vehicles.

Zardari called for a United Nations inquiry into her slaying, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s office said Musharraf had agreed to “consider” international help.

The government’s version of events—that she smashed her head on her car sunroof in an al-Qaeda attack—has been dismissed by her supporters who say she was shot before the bomber blew himself up, killing 20 people.

There is little doubt Bhutto, a strong critic of al-Qaeda-linked extremists blamed for scores of bombings in Pakistan, had received many death threats.

However, she had also accused elements from Pakistan’s intelligence services of involvement in a suicide attack on a rally in October that killed 139, and which she only narrowly escaped.

Zardari said he had denied the government permission for an autopsy, as he had lived here “long enough to know” how it would be handled.

The Pakistani crisis has forced its way into the Democratic and Republican nominating contests for next year’s US presidential election.

Leading candidates said Washington was essentially stuck with Musharraf, a frontline ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.

“I’m not calling for him to step down,” Democrat Hillary Clinton told ABC television, urging him to ensure an independent probe into Bhutto’s death and free and fair elections.

Republican John McCain said Musharraf was “important” to Pakistan’s future and echoed Clinton in asking: “Who will take his place?”—AFP

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