Pakistan's strained and stumbling transition towards democracy seems set to be further delayed after the authorities said they had decided "in principle" to postpone parliamentary elections despite demands from opposition parties that they go ahead as scheduled.
While a final decision was put off until later today, the country's election commission said yesterday it "looks impossible" that the polls could go ahead on 8 January as planned. "Our offices in 10 districts of Sindh have been burned, the electoral rolls have been burned, the polling schemes, the nomination papers have been burned," said a spokesman, Kanwar Dilshad. "We are in a very tricky situation."
Both the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the party of the assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) have demanded the elections proceed as planned. Mr Sharif has said his supporters would probably take to the streets in protest if the process were delayed. "We will agitate," he told the Associated Press. "We will not accept this postponement."
A statement released by Ms Bhutto's son, Bilawal, and her husband Asif Ali Zardari, who now jointly chair the party, said: "It is up to the people of Pakistan to choose their future, and the time is now. The 8 January elections must proceed as scheduled. This will not only be a tribute to the memory of Benazir Bhutto, but even more important, a reaffirmation of the cause of democracy for which she died."
Pervez Musharraf said it was ready to contest the elections on the 8th, despite suggestions that it could lose ground to the PPP as a result of a 'sympathy vote' in the aftermath of Ms Bhutto's killing. "We are ready for it," said spokesman Tariq Azim. "But it is the Election Commission's decision. If they feel they cannot do it on the 8th [that is its decision.]"
Though the commission is a nominally independent body, it is widely believed that any decision on whether the elections should proceed to schedule will be taken by Pervez Musharraf. Mr Musharraf - whose administration has offered a 10m rupee (£80,000) reward to identify Ms Bhutto's killers - has often said he wishes to move Pakistan towards democracy. His recent actions, however, have repeatedly hindered both the election process and individual opposition candidates. Yesterday it emerged that Atizaz Ahsan, a leading lawyer and member of the PPP, had been detained for a further 30 days under house arrest.
While at least 58 people have died in the violent and angry aftermath of Ms Bhutto's death last Thursday, Pakistan appeared yesterday to be returning to a sense of calm. From around the country there were markedly fewer reports of disturbances and even if the election is delayed there is not certain there would be a widespread violent reaction. Some observers believe it makes sense to delay the vote until after the holy month of Muharram has been completed in mid-February.
Either way, Ms Bhutto's killing has drastically changed the political landscape in Pakistan, where many had presumed she would lead the PPP to victory in the parliamentary elections and serve an historic third term as prime minister, having twice previously been ousted amid allegations of corruption. The US and UK had long been backing a power-sharing deal between her and Mr Musharraf and since her return from self-imposed exile last October, it appeared she would likely again serve as premier, despite badly falling out with the president in recent weeks.
Should the PPP now win the lion's share of seats in a forthcoming election - an outcome that is far from guaranteed - the party would be led in the parliament by its vice-chairman, Amin Fahim. Mr Fahim has already received a telephone call from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who expressed the Bush administration's wish that the elections go ahead as planned.