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Delay in critical Pakistani election expected

Pakistani electoral officials will decide on Tuesday whether to go ahead with a Jan. 8 poll, with expectations it will be delayed by up to two months after Benazir Bhutto’s killing.
Supporters of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) hold a candle vigil in the memory of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto in Lahore, on Tuesday. Arif Ali / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: news services

Pakistani electoral officials will decide on Tuesday whether to go ahead with a Jan. 8 poll, with expectations it will be delayed by up to two months after Benazir Bhutto’s killing plunged the country into crisis.

Election Commission Secretary Kanwar Dilashad told reporters that a decision on the timing would be announced on Tuesday, but a recommendation “has been sent to the government for a delay.”

The recommendation came as video footage of Bhutto’s killing raised new questions about the government’s version of how she died.

Tariq Azim, information secretary of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which backs President Pervez Musharraf, said the vote would lose credibility if it was held now, with Bhutto's party in mourning and other opposition groups intent on boycotting. He expected authorities to announce a delay within 24 hours.

"How long the postponement will be for will be up to the Election Commission," he told The Associated Press. "I think we are looking at a delay of a few weeks ... up to three or four months."

The country’s major opposition parties have demanded that elections take place as scheduled on Jan. 8 despite turmoil triggered by the assassination. A successful vote would bolster U.S.-backed plans to restore democracy to the nuclear-armed country as it battles Islamic extremism.

Foreign election monitors cautioned, however, that a full observation mission would be impossible if the polls went ahead next week because the unrest had caused them to delay preparations.

“We cannot follow our standard methods if the date stays Jan. 8,” said Mathias Eick, a spokesman for the European Union-led mission, saying the best it could manage was a limited assessment.

Bhutto was killed Thursday, but disagreements between her supporters and the government over the precise cause of death are undermining confidence in Musharraf and adding to calls for international investigators to probe the killing.

The video footage, obtained by Britain’s Channel 4, shows a man firing a handgun at Bhutto from close range as she stands up in an open-topped vehicle. Her hair and shawl then move upward, suggesting she may have been shot. She then falls into the vehicle just before an explosion rocks the car.

The government has insisted Bhutto was not hit by any of the bullets and died after the force of the blast slammed her head against the sunroof. Bhutto’s family and supporters say she died from gunshot wounds to her head and neck.

Son chosen
Bhutto's 19-year old son was chosen Sunday to succeed her as chairman of her opposition party, while her husband will serve as co-chairman, extending Pakistan's most famous political dynasty to another generation.

The party also decided to contest upcoming elections, apparently ending the threat of a wholesale boycott by Pakistan's political opposition as the key U.S.-ally struggles to transition to full democracy after years of military rule.

The decision was made at a closed meeting of the Pakistan People's Party central executive committee, three days after the two-time prime minister was assassinated in a suicide attack.

It catapults Bilawal Zardari, an Oxford University student with no political experience, to the center of Pakistan's tumultuous public life.

"The party's long struggle for democracy will continue with renewed vigor," he said at a news conference. "My mother always said democracy is the best revenge."

Supporters chanted "Benazir, princess of heaven" and "Bilawal, move ahead. We are with you."

Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari, 51, is a party powerbroker who served as environment minister in her second government.

As co-chairman he is widely expected to have hands-on leadership of the party.

He immediately announced the group's participation in the vote, and appealed to the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to drop his plans to boycott the polls — planned for Jan. 8.

Sharif on Monday did just that. “In my view, there is a dire need today that the People’s Party and Sindh should not be left alone,” he told a news conference in the eastern city of Lahore.

Country in crisis
Bhutto's assassination plunged the country into a political crisis and triggered nationwide riots that left at least 44 people dead ahead of the parliamentary elections, seen as key to promoting stability in the country.

Police struggled to control the crowds in Bhutto's hometown of Naudero, many of whom had walked miles to get there. They shouted "Musharraf is a killer!" and called for the separation of Bhutto's home province of Sindh from the rest of Pakistan.

Controversy remained about whether Bhutto was killed by gunshots, a shrapnel wound or the concussive force of the blast. She was buried without an autopsy and the debate over her cause of death was undermining confidence in the government and further angering her followers.

On Saturday, the government rejected suggestions it should enlist foreign help in investigating Bhutto's assassination.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that an international probe into Bhutto's death was vital because there was "no reason to trust the Pakistani government."  Others called for a U.N. investigation.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Pakistan had not officially requested U.S. help.

"It's a responsibility of the government of Pakistan to ensure that the investigation is thorough. If Pakistani authorities ask for assistance we would review the request," he said.

A senior U.S. official, however, said Pakistan was already "discussing with other governments as to how best the investigation can be handled."

With the United States, the discussions "are about what we can offer and what the Pakistanis want. Having some help to make sure international questions are answered is definitely an option," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no agreement had yet come from the discussions.

There was no immediate confirmation from Pakistani officials.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband offered his country's assistance. "Obviously it's very important that a full investigation does take place, and has the confidence of all concerned," he said.

The government has blamed the attack on Baitullah Mehsud, head of the Tehrik-i-Taliban, a newly formed coalition of Islamic militants along the Afghan border believed to be linked to al-Qaida and committed to waging holy war against the government.

But a spokesman for Mehsud, Maulana Mohammed Umer, dismissed the allegations as "government propaganda."

Bhutto's aides said they, too, doubted Mehsud was involved and accused the government of a cover-up.

"The story that al-Qaida or Baitullah Mehsud did it appears to us to be a planted story, an incorrect story, because they want to divert the attention," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto's party.

Authorities initially said Bhutto died from bullet wounds. A surgeon who treated her later said the impact from shrapnel on her skull killed her.

But Cheema said Friday that Bhutto was killed when the shock waves from the bomb smashed her head into the sunroof as she tried to duck back inside the vehicle.

Bhutto's spokeswoman Sherry Rehman, who was in the vehicle that rushed her boss to the hospital, disputed that.

"She was bleeding profusely, as she had received a bullet wound in her neck. My car was full of blood. Three doctors at the hospital told us that she had received bullet wounds. I was among the people who gave her a final bath. We saw a bullet wound in the back of her neck," she said. "What the government is saying is actually dangerous and nonsensical. They are pouring salt on our wounds. There are no findings, they are just lying."

Cheema stood by the government's version of events, and said Bhutto's party was free to exhume her body for an autopsy.

The election commission has called an emergency meeting for Monday to decide how to proceed with the parliamentary elections.

Riots have destroyed nine election offices — along with the voter rolls and ballot boxes inside, the election commission said.

In the eastern city of Bahawalnagar, meanwhile, two suspected suicide bombers died early Sunday when they prematurely detonated their bomb near the residence of Ijazul Haq, a senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, police said. Haq was not at home at the time. The blast was the first suicide attack in Pakistan since Bhutto's assassination.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.