ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – It appears “impossible” for Pakistan to hold a vote on Jan. 8 because of unrest following the killing of Benazir Bhutto, the country’s election commission said Tuesday. The announcement could spark protests by parties demanding quick polls to capitalize on sympathy for the slain opposition leader.
The commission said it would announce a new date on Wednesday after meeting Pakistan’s political parties.
Government and election officials earlier said they expect a delay of up to six weeks in the polls, which are seen as key to restoring democracy to the nation as it battles rising attacks by al-Qaida and Taliban militants.
Bhutto’s party and other opposition groups want the elections on time because they expect large electoral gains amid sympathy for Bhutto and anger at President Pervez Musharraf following her assassination.
Britain and the United States are also eager for the vote to take place as scheduled, but have indicated they would accept a slight delay if technical reasons dictated one.
Bhutto’s killing last week thrust the country into crisis and triggered nationwide riots.
At least 44 people were killed and the mobs caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to homes, government offices and transport facilities, but the violence has died down since Sunday amid a heavy police and army presence.
Bhutto’s home province of Sindh was especially hard hit. “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,” commission spokesman Kanwar Dilshad told reporters. “We are in a very tricky situation.” He said it now “looks impossible” to hold the polls on Jan. 8.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who heads a large opposition party and is a vocal critic of Musharraf, threatened street protests if the vote was delayed.
Bhutto’s party also wants the vote to go ahead on schedule. “We will agitate,” Sharif told The Associated Press on Monday. “We will not accept this postponement.”
The United States said a minor delay in elections would be acceptable if all parties agreed to the idea. “The key here is that there be a date certain for elections,” said Tom Casey, deputy spokesman for the State Department, said Monday. “We would certainly have concerns about some sort of indefinite postponement of the elections.
Bhutto was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack that the government blamed on Islamic extremists. Her husband and other opposition leaders have called for an international, independent investigation into the attack and accused Musharraf of failing to adequately protect her.
Some people close to Bhutto have alleged forces close to the U.S-backed former general may have been involved.
In a statement received Tuesday, the government, which has rejected charges of involvement in Bhutto’s death, said it was “committed to a thorough and transparent investigation and will not shy away from receiving assistance from outside, if needed.”
U.S. officials meanwhile said Washington had provided a steady stream of intelligence to Bhutto about threats against her by Islamic extremists after suicide attackers came close to killing her in a massive blast hours after she had returned from self-imposed exile in October. “She knew people were trying to assassinate her,” an intelligence official told The AP. “We don’t hold information back on possible attacks on foreign leaders and foreign countries.” The official added, however, that while the U.S. could share the information, “it’s up to (the recipient) how they want to take action.”
The officials said the United States had quietly joined calls for Pakistan to allow international experts to join the probe into Bhutto’s slaying. The officials said they expected an announcement soon that investigators from Britain’s Scotland Yard would be asked to play a significant role. Any U.S. involvement would be limited and low-key, they said.