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Pak set to delay election after Bhutto death

world Updated: Jan 02, 2008 10:46 IST
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Pakistan is expected to set a new date for elections on Wednesday after the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto sparked bloodshed and rage against President Pervez Musharraf's government.

The Election Commission is to meet at around 11.30 am (0630 GMT) in Islamabad, and is expected to announce a new date later. Analysts expect the January 8 vote in nuclear-armed Pakistan to be postponed to mid-February or early March and say a delay could lead to renewed violence.

The commission has said many of its offices in Sindh, Bhutto's home province, were burnt in the rioting that followed Bhutto's murder and election material including voter rolls reduced to ashes.

Nearly 60 people died in the post-assassination violence and, while the situation has now calmed, it remains tense and markets are gripped by fears of capital flight if security worsens. Share prices fell 3 per cent on Tuesday.

The Pakistan Muslim League, which backs Musharraf, says it has no objection to postponing the vote because of security concerns.

Supporters of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the other main opposition party, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, want the January 8 election to go ahead as planned, fearing a delay would work to Musharraf's advantage.

Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, the new co-chairman of the PPP alongside their 19-year-old son Bilawal, has called a party meeting at Bhutto's family home in southern Sindh province later in the day.

Musharraf is due to give a televised address to the nation at 8 pm (1500 GMT). In a joint statement with Sharif issued on Tuesday, Zardari insisted the ballot must go ahead as planned.

"The January 8th 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."

They rejected an announcement from the Election Commission, which has said that "in principle" the election was being delayed.

"Suppose they postpone elections for 10 days, 15 days or one month and there is another assassination, then what will happen?" Zardari, told Reuters Television on Tuesday.

"What guarantee is there that once they postpone the elections the situation will be under control?" The PPP would expect to reap a considerable sympathy vote following Bhutto's murder.

Her killing has fuelled doubts about the country's stability and the transition to democratic rule in Pakistan, a crucial US ally in its anti-terrorism efforts.

Bhutto, relatively liberal by Pakistan's standards and an opponent of Islamist militancy, returned from self-imposed exile in October. Hours after arriving home she narrowly escaped a suicide blast against her motorcade that killed about 140 people.

Her death wrecked US hopes of a power-sharing deal between her and Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999 but left the army in November to become a civilian president.