Pakistan's Election Commission has genuine problems in holding polls on schedule on Janurary 8. Its officials have postponed declaring the precise poll dates to Wednesday, indicating however that they are likely to be held in February.
But such is the level of distrust in the country that its efforts to rework the dates are denounced as a concession to the ruling establishment, notably the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid) whose candidates may not be able to venture out of their homes, leave alone seek votes in the prevailing atmosphere of hostility.
Early polls suit the Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) more than any other party, including Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). That most of the PPP's opponents might fall by the wayside is evident from the sense of outrage in Sharif's traditional citadel, Lahore. To retain his hold on the city, he has no option but to empathise with "shaheed" Benazir Bhutto's political and biological family.
For this reason, Sharif accepted Asif Ali Zardari's advice to participate in the elections he had decided to boycott after Benazir's murder. To ingratiate himself further with her grieving supporters, he keeps drawing parallels between himself and the deceased leader: the threat to his person; the government's failure to provide him security, and the firing at his rally in Rawalpindi the day Benazir fell to an assassin.
"I'm told she wanted to speak to me on learning of the attack on my rally that left five people dead. But that was not to be," Sharif told the Hindustan Times. "PPP cadres hugged me and wept when I went to see her at the hospital…and later while condoling with her family at Larkana."
Like Benazir, he too is paying for the bullet proof car he is using, continued Sharif. But crores were spent out of public money on dozens of armoured vehicles used by President Pervez Musharraf and his supporters.
The former Premier has sound political reasons to be on the same side of the political divide. The strategy will help him cut the PML (N)'s electoral losses and keep alive the possibility of a post-poll coalition with the PPP that is certain to ride to power on a sympathy wave cutting across parochial, ethnic and linguistic prejudices.
Zardari has done well to reinforce such goodwill by saluting the Punjabis who died trying to save Benazir. Another example of his political savvy was the prompt distancing from the separatist Pakistan na khape slogan with the retort that come what may, the country would survive: Pakistan khape, Pakistan khape.
For their part, Sharif and his younger brother, Shahbaz have, in their own way, sought to project the PML (N) as a competing force of unity. "We are the people who put balm on wounds inflicted by the generals. We stood by the family of Akbar Bugti, and we are with the PPP," they said.
Sharif described Musharraf as a one-man calamity who has pushed Pakistan to the brink. "Democracy alone is the antidote that will bring the alienated sections to the national mainstream," he argued. "The forces which killed Benazir are the forces of darkness. They prefer rifles over reason."
But the PML (N) leader has some explaining to do on the very issues on which he speaks so passionately. By placing the entire blame on Musharraf, he is ignoring the terrorist threat Benazir so clearly flagged at the risk of her life.