Pakistan to announce vote date on Wednesday

Pakistan’s election commission said the date for parliamentary elections would be announced on Wednesday, with a delay until February now in view following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

The January 8 vote, the next step along the road to civilian-led democracy in Pakistan, was thrown into chaos with the killing of the opposition leader last week, which set off days of unrest that left nearly 60 people dead.

After urgent meetings on Tuesday morning as officials tried to assess the security situation across the country, election commission spokesperson Kanwar Dilshad said the date for the vote would be made public on Wednesday.

“After consulting with the political parties, we will give the date tomorrow [Wednesday],” Dilshad said. He later told Agence France-Presse: “It looks impossible to hold elections on January 8.”

In remarks to reporters, Dilshad said political parties needed to be consulted and that the Muslim holy month of Moharram, which ends in Pakistan on February 8, was likely to come into consideration.

He said provincial governments had been asked to report on security following the unrest, which caused tens of millions of dollars in damages, and that they had said it should be taken into account.

“They have all mentioned the month of Moharram,” Dilshad said. Officials said that it would be difficult to hold the vote during Moharram, which begins January 10, because of religious sensitivities and fears of sectarian violence.

Earlier, a senior official said that the vote would not be delayed beyond the end of February.

“We want the delay to be minimal,” said the official, who could not be named. “But the election commission needs a realistic amount of time to get things back on track.”

The government of President Pervez Musharraf is facing calls from its ally and backer, the United States, not to put off the January 8 vote too long, and opposition parties have been arguing against a delay.

A wave of violence, arson and looting swept the country after Bhutto’s assassination at a campaign rally on Thursday, fuelled by outrage over her death and disbelief at the government explanation of how she died.

At least 58 people were killed, most of them in the southern province of Sindh, the seat of the Bhutto family’s political dynasty where she was laid to rest Friday at a funeral attended by hundreds of thousands of mourners.

Rampaging demonstrators ransacked election offices in several places across the province, destroying voter lists and hampering preparations for the election, the senior official said.

“The situation in Sindh is volatile,” he said. “It is very difficult for election staff to move around.”

Several top officials confirmed that the commission had decided to delay the vote but wanted to assess the security situation in the provinces before deciding how long to postpone it, the official said. — AFP

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