Date for Pakistan election to be announced today

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- With the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto pushing for elections to be held on schedule next week, President Pervez Musharraf's government appeared poised yesterday to postpone the polling well into February.

Pakistan's Election Commission, which is made up of Musharraf supporters, was to announce today whether the vote would be delayed. A postponement could prompt renewed violence by supporters of opposition parties.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, still mourning its slain leader, declared Sunday that it wanted the Jan. 8 elections to proceed on schedule despite her death.

Analysts said the party would be positioned to capitalize on an enormous sympathy vote in the wake of Bhutto's assassination on Dec. 27.

Her party is the largest political group in Pakistan. Before her assassination, a mixed voting result had been expected, but public anger over Bhutto's death could pose a serious new challenge to Musharraf's ruling party, analysts say.

Late yesterday, sources close to the Election Commission said the vote probably would take place in the third week of February.

As Musharraf and the opposition quarreled over how best to proceed with the election, new controversy raged over the government's account of events surrounding Bhutto's assassination.

The former prime minister's party has accused the government of trying to cover up Bhutto's having been shot just before a suicide blast that rocked the convoy as she left a rally last Thursday.

The government says the 54-year-old leader died of a fractured skull from striking her head on the lever of her sunroof as she was propelled by the force of the explosion.

But new video footage obtained by a British news channel appears to support the contention that a gunman's bullets did find their mark in Bhutto as she waved to crowds from the sunroof of her car.

The video shows a man firing a gun at close range at Bhutto, whose hair and head scarf then fly upward.

Leaders of her party have demanded an international investigation into the killing.

In Washington, the Pakistani ambassador said the Musharraf government would accept international assistance for an inquiry into the disputed circumstances surrounding Bhutto's death, but not an independent investigation by outside experts.

In Crawford, Texas, where President Bush was spending New Year's Eve, Deputy White House press secretary Scott Stanzel said it is up to the people of Pakistan to decide whether they want the United States to assist in the investigation of Bhutto's death.

"They're a sovereign government, and they will have to be conducting that investigation," he said. He noted that the United States has offered assistance but that aid had not been requested.

Nawaz Sharif, now the principal opposition figure, demanded yesterday that Musharraf step down and be replaced by a national unity government. At a news conference in the eastern city of Lahore, Sharif called the Pakistani president a "one-man calamity."

"The United States should see that Musharraf has not limited or curbed terrorism," said Sharif, a former prime minister who was deposed by Musharraf in a 1999 coup.

"In fact, terrorism is now stronger than ever before, with more sinister aspects."

Violent rioting swept the country, particularly Bhutto's home province of Sindh, in the wake of her assassination, and government officials had hinted that might be reason enough to postpone the polling.

But the rioting had largely subsided by Sunday.

Many Pakistanis believe that the government, at the very least, bears the responsibility for failing to provide Bhutto with adequate security. Musharraf aides have said she acted recklessly in placing herself unprotected among large crowds.

Although Musharraf's opponents are eager to hold the vote on schedule, some international observers say the unrest of recent days has made it difficult for them to adequately prepare for the observation mission.

Many opposition figures and Pakistani political commentators have said that damage to election offices in Sindh province caused by the violence that erupted after Bhutto's death, the burning of electoral rolls and what they saw as the government's plans to rig the results virtually guaranteed that the election would be deeply flawed if it were held next Tuesday.

Sharif suggested that his party would participate only because it had little choice but to follow the decision of Bhutto's party to run in the elections.

On Sunday, Bhutto's party anointed her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Zardari, as its ceremonial leader, and said her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, would be responsible for running its day-to-day affairs.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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