The nation’s Election Commission said Tuesday that damage done to electoral offices during rioting that followed Benazir Bhutto’s assassination made it impossible for Pakistan to hold parliamentary elections next Tuesday as scheduled.
The commission, which is made up of supporters of President Pervez Musharraf, was expected to announce a new election date today. Commission sources have said the polling would be held around the second week of February, but the panel put off its announcement by a day because the issue is so highly charged.
Opposition parties have already denounced the expected postponement and warned of the potential for renewed street violence in response to the delay.
“I don’t think a delay will go down well with the people at all,” said analyst Shaukat Qadir, a retired brigadier general.
A postponement is generally thought to be to the government’s advantage. Bhutto’s already popular Pakistan People’s Party will probably garner a substantial sympathy vote whenever the election is held, but analysts have said that the effect could diminish somewhat once the shock of her violent death Thursday subsides.
Musharraf was to address the nation tonight, hours after the commission announces the voting timetable. His ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, said it had no motive to delay the vote.
“We are as ready [for the election] today as we were before the sad events of Dec. 27,” said Tariq Azim Khan, former minister of state for information.
The government Tuesday offered a reward of about $164,000 for information about Bhutto’s suspected killers. Video images and still photos that have surfaced since the attack show a cleanshaven man in sunglasses pointing a gun and a man wrapped in a white shawl, believed to be the suicide bomber who detonated his explosives just after the shots were fired.
Ads placed in newspapers by the government show a blurred frame from one of the videos, together with a photograph of the suspected bomber’s severed head.
Rioting that broke out after Bhutto’s assassination, concentrated in her home province of Sindh, has died down. But Kanwar Dilshad, a spokesman for the Election Commission, said about a dozen election offices had been burned and voter records and nomination papers destroyed during weekend unrest. He said that made it too difficult to proceed with the election as planned.
Both Bhutto’s party and the other main opposition leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, have said the government is exaggerating the extent of the problem posed by the loss of records.
“There have been elections in conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, so I find it difficult to understand why this election cannot be held on time,” Sherry Rehman, a senior aide to Bhutto’s party, told English-language Dawn television.
Before her death, Bhutto had alleged that the Musharraf government was planning to carry out large-scale vote rigging. Aides said she had intended to give two visiting U.S. Congress members a report on the subject in a meeting scheduled after her afternoon rally Thursday in the city of Rawalpindi.
She was slain as she was leaving the gathering, in a large park in the center of the city, headquarters of the Pakistani military.
Bhutto’s three teenage children, who had flown in for her funeral, left Pakistan on Tuesday. The eldest, 19-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has been named ceremonial head of her party, with Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, running its day-to-day affairs.
The family has homes in London and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and the children have lived outside Pakistan for most of their lives. Bilawal Zardari is to resume his studies at Oxford University in England.