Pakistan to Decide Timing of Elections

Political turmoil Pakistan entered 2008 with the country still enmeshed in the political turmoil caused by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Election officials will announce tomorrow whether to postpone next week's parliamentary elections next week. But officials say they're leaning toward a postponement.

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The parliamentary elections that Benazir Bhutto was campaigning for when she was assassinated are expected to be postponed today. Her own party and other opposition parties in Pakistan have been demanding that the vote goes as planned on Tuesday, but Pakistan's election commission is to announce a delay of at least a few weeks. Deadly riots followed last week's assassination of former Prime Minister Bhutto, and the country is still tense.

We go now to NPR's Philip Reeves who's in Karachi.

And Phil, the opposition says a delay in the voting benefits the government, which it says - that is the opposition - says is facing defeat in this parliamentary elections.

PHILIP REEVES: Yes, by the opposition, of course. We are mainly, here, talking about the Pakistan People's Party; that was Benazir Bhutto's party. And they believe that they stand to do extremely well in these elections, not least of course because of a sympathy vote that will flow from the assassination of Bhutto. The argument, I think, is that if you leave the elections for a period of time, the sympathy vote will reduce. So there's no absolute evidence of that.

This was a stunning blow to the country, and one can anticipate that the impact of that assassination will last for a while. Into the mix, you have to throw the party of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He is also pressing for the elections to be held on time, although the PPP - Bhutto's party - will probably be the main beneficiary of an earlier election.

MONTAGNE: And how important is this vote?

REEVES: It's extremely important. The country is nervous. It's unstable. The U.S. is pressing Pakistan to hold the elections as soon as it's possible to do so. The election commission is saying that it's got logistical problems. Some of their election offices in this province of Sindh, in particular, have been vandalized in attack.

The opposition is saying that those problems are not big enough to justify a delay. They point out that they're only about 10 percent of the district election offices which are affected by this. And after all, in Afghanistan and in Chechnya elections have in recent years been held. It's important for other reasons also. The allegations of rigging could gather momentum if the government of Pervez Musharraf is able to put these elections back for some time.

There's also the potential that the opposition will go ahead with its threats to hold street protests if the elections are unduly delayed. And that, of course, brings with it the possibility of further instability - a crucial issue.

MONTAGNE: Now that it appears to be postponed, when is it actually likely to be held, this election?

REEVES: Well, the official announcement is awaited later today. The signs are, though, that the election commission is going to announce this will be in the second week of February. One reason for this is that we're bound to have the month of Muharram, which in the Islamic calendar, the most sacred month after Ramadan.

And there is a concern not to hold it during that period of time because it's also a very sensitive time. But there are other issues, which have been cited by the election commission, not the least of which are the logistical problems that it claims to have in the aftermath of the violence and the rioting that broke out after Bhutto's assassination became nationally known.

MONTAGNE: Now, Pervez Musharraf, president of Pakistan, he's delivering a speech later today. Do you have any idea what he's going to say?

REEVES: Well, we can be certain that he will appeal for calm. I'm sure he will address also the issue of the elections in some form. People will be watching closely to see whether he has anything to say about demands that are being made by the opposition for an international investigating team to take part in the inquiry into Bhutto's death.

There is still a tremendous amount of suspicion and unease about the allegations and claims the government has been making about how she died and who did it. There is a belief amongst Bhutto's party supporters that the government is trying to cover something up. They, therefore, want an international team - a U.N. inquiry some of them are asking for - to go in there and establish the true facts.

Until this issue is cleared up, it's going to be like a running sore in this country. And so the opposition will be pushing for that, listening to see whether Musharraf has anything to say about it.

MONTAGNE: Phil, thanks very much for talking with us.

REEVES: You're most welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Philip Reeves speaking from Karachi, Pakistan.

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