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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 January 2008, 20:09 GMT
Pakistan vote delay won't curb instability
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Pakistani ballot boxes
Ballot boxes will not now be used until next month

The decision of the Election Commission of Pakistan to delay parliamentary elections by six weeks has surprised no one.

But President Pervez Musharraf hastened to soften the impact, allowing British detectives to help investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Ms Bhutto was killed in a gun and bomb attack on 27 December, 12 days before parliamentary elections scheduled for 8 January.

Elections will now be held on 18 February.

Agitation

Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has discounted the ability of the British detectives from Scotland Yard to throw up any surprises in the investigation.

It says a PPP request for a similar investigation following the 18 October attack on Ms Bhutto's procession in Karachi, if accepted, could have made a difference.

The inquiry into that earlier attack still remains inconclusive.

Meanwhile, the party has condemned the postponement of elections, but has stopped short of calling for agitation.

Pakistan Election Commission building
The Election Commission has come under enormous pressure

The Election Commission says the postponement will give it time to complete arrangements that it says were disrupted due to riots following Ms Bhutto's assassination.

The commission dithered over the matter for a long time before arriving at its decision.

It waited for three days after Ms Bhutto's death, apparently hoping for the PPP to request a postponement. The party in fact decided to press for the polls to go ahead.

Sensitivities

It then took another three days of deliberations - and much behind-the-scenes consultation with top government officials - before making its announcement.

Hours afterwards, President Musharraf issued a warning against any political agitation and gave orders for the arrest of all those involved in rioting following Ms Bhutto's death.

A poster of the late Benazir Bhutto hangs from a building in Karachi

In addition, he announced that the army would be deployed to control the law and order situation "during and after elections".

This concerted move by the president and the Election Commission is indicative of the sensitivities involved in the current uncertain climate.

By the commission's own admission, election records in only 11 out of the country's 114 administrative districts were destroyed in incidents of arson.

Many analysts have been suggesting that elections could be held in the unaffected districts, with a short postponement in the affected ones.

Instead, the commission has gone for an overall postponement, arguing that law and order situation in the rest of the country is not conducive for elections.

This argument is likely to be interpreted by the opposition as an attempt by the commission to safeguard the interests of the ruling PML-Q party.

Soon after Ms Bhutto's assassination, most PML-Q candidates across the country had to abandon their constituencies to avoid a backlash from PPP workers.

The district governments that provided support to these candidates in their campaign were also put on the back foot against a resurgent PPP and its new ally, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's PML-N party.

Serious consequences

Analysts were expecting a surge in voter turnout, and a sympathy wave for the PPP as well as a backlash against the PML-Q that would have benefited both the PPP and PML-N.

It is generally thought that a postponement benefits the PML-Q, insofar as it might allow popular anger over Ms Bhutto's assassination to run out of steam.

A paramilitary soldier stands guard in Ms Bhutto's home town of Larkana
Mr Musharraf says soldiers will keep law and order during elections

But will a six-week delay achieve that end?

Observers believe that while PML-Q would have liked a delay of up to three months, it may still gain some crucial time to regroup and put its campaign back on track.

The challenge for the PPP now is to keep the sympathy wave going, and keep up the pressure on PML-Q.

For the time being the party has avoided going into agitation mode, but friction with the government may increase if the administration starts arresting PPP workers in connection with the riots.

This may create wider unrest as PPP workers are in a mobilised state. In Sindh province, such a situation may strengthen the separatist nationalists, with serious consequences for the government.

Analysts believe that in the coming days, the PPP may exploit the situation in Sindh to force other demands on the government, such as the suspension of district governments and changes in the Election Commission or the interim government.

On all these counts, the party is likely to be backed by the PML-N.

Amid all the uncertainties, one thing is certain: expect more political instability in Pakistan in 2008.

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