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Pakistani Opposition Weighs Street Protests

Panel Yet to Set New Date For Elections That Could Further Weaken Musharraf

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A Pakistani soldier stands guard under a campaign poster for the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a Karachi, Pakistan, Monday, Dec. 31, 2007. Elections in Pakistan look set to be delayed by several weeks despite demands by Bhutto's party and other politicians they take place as scheduled on Jan. 8, officials said Monday. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)
A Pakistani soldier stands guard under a campaign poster for the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a Karachi, Pakistan, Monday, Dec. 31, 2007. Elections in Pakistan look set to be delayed by several weeks despite demands by Bhutto's party and other politicians they take place as scheduled on Jan. 8, officials said Monday. (AP Photo/Fareed Khan) (Fareed Khan - AP)
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier stands guard at the head office of Election Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Dec. 31, 2007. Election officials recommended that parliamentary polls scheduled for Jan. 8 be delayed for an unspecified period following unrest triggered by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
A Pakistani paramilitary soldier stands guard at the head office of Election Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Dec. 31, 2007. Election officials recommended that parliamentary polls scheduled for Jan. 8 be delayed for an unspecified period following unrest triggered by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed) (Anjum Naveed - AP)
Pakistani paramilitary troops stand guard at the head office of Election Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Dec. 31, 2007. Election officials recommended that parliamentary polls scheduled for Jan. 8 be delayed for an unspecified period following unrest triggered by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
Pakistani paramilitary troops stand guard at the head office of Election Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Dec. 31, 2007. Election officials recommended that parliamentary polls scheduled for Jan. 8 be delayed for an unspecified period following unrest triggered by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed) (Anjum Naveed - AP)
Pakistan's Election Commission Secretary Kanwar Dilashad, center, leaves after talking to the media at the head office of the Election Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Dec. 31, 2007. Election officials recommended that parliamentary polls scheduled for Jan. 8 be delayed for an unspecified period following unrest triggered by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
Pakistan's Election Commission Secretary Kanwar Dilashad, center, leaves after talking to the media at the head office of the Election Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Dec. 31, 2007. Election officials recommended that parliamentary polls scheduled for Jan. 8 be delayed for an unspecified period following unrest triggered by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed) (Anjum Naveed - AP)
Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to media at his house Monday Dec. 31, 2007 in Lahore, Pakistan. Sharif said Monday that Pakistan's parliamentary elections should be held Jan. 8 as scheduled despite the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He also said Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf should resign and be replaced by a national unity government.(AP Photo/Ed Wray)
Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to media at his house Monday Dec. 31, 2007 in Lahore, Pakistan. Sharif said Monday that Pakistan's parliamentary elections should be held Jan. 8 as scheduled despite the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He also said Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf should resign and be replaced by a national unity government.(AP Photo/Ed Wray) (Ed Wray - AP)
Supporters of Pakistan's slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto mourn at her grave in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, near Larkana, Pakistan on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)
Supporters of Pakistan's slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto mourn at her grave in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, near Larkana, Pakistan on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash) (B.k.bangash - AP)
Supporters of Pakistan's slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, mourn at her grave in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh near Larkana, Pakistan on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)
Supporters of Pakistan's slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, mourn at her grave in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh near Larkana, Pakistan on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash) (B.k.bangash - AP)
Supporters of Pakistan's slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto visit her grave in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, near Larkana, Pakistan on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)
Supporters of Pakistan's slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto visit her grave in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, near Larkana, Pakistan on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2008. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash) (B.k.bangash - AP)
The son of slain Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, Bilawal Zardari is seen after his arrival at Dubai's international airport. Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2008. Zardari arrived in Dubai Tuesday from Pakistan after attending Bhutto's funeral and being appointed symbolic head of her powerful political party. (AP Photo/Aziz Shah)
The son of slain Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, Bilawal Zardari is seen after his arrival at Dubai's international airport. Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2008. Zardari arrived in Dubai Tuesday from Pakistan after attending Bhutto's funeral and being appointed symbolic head of her powerful political party. (AP Photo/Aziz Shah) (Aziz Shah - AP)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 2, 2008; Page A06

KARACHI, Pakistan, Jan. 1 -- Opposition leaders on Tuesday debated whether to call mass street protests in response to a government decision to delay parliamentary elections that had been due next week, but now will be put off until after Feb. 8.

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Demonstrations are "not something we want to do. The country doesn't need more instability. It doesn't need more violence," said Sherry Rehman, spokeswoman for the Pakistan People's Party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. "We're going to use demonstrations as a last resort. But if we're pushed to the wall, that's what we have to do."

Proposals to put off the vote have provoked furor from the parties opposed to President Pervez Musharraf. They charge that Musharraf and his allies are using Bhutto's assassination Thursday as an excuse to try to avoid a landslide defeat.

The elections will determine the composition of parliament, as well as the new prime minister. The stakes are especially high for Musharraf because a new parliament could impeach him if opposition groups secure a two-thirds majority.

Officials at the country's Election Commission had been scheduled to officially announce the delay on Tuesday but put off the statement until Wednesday, saying at the same time that damage from recent rioting made it logistically impossible to hold the vote on schedule next Tuesday. Officials gave no new date, but said it would be after the Islamic holy month of Muharram, which ends Feb. 8.

The Pakistan People's Party is set to meet Wednesday to formally decide whether to call supporters to the streets in protest. If it does, there is a risk of further violence, just days after enraged Bhutto supporters went on a rampage in cities and towns across the country. The rioting caused tens of millions of dollars in damage and left more than 50 people dead.

Tariq Azim Khan, spokesman for the major pro-Musharraf party, said security forces had been slow to react last week because they wanted to allow Bhutto supporters to vent their rage over her death. But he said they would respond more forcefully the next time.

Khan blamed the rioting for the expected delay in the voting, saying that election commission offices were burned and that people were made to feel afraid. "So long as that feeling persists," Khan said, "you can't expect a fair turnout, which is essential for any election to be meaningful."

Khan said the elections were likely to be postponed until February, but not later.

Opposition parties have said they fear the government will use the threat of political violence -- ever-present in Pakistan -- to delay the elections indefinitely.

"A postponement will create another rough patch for the country," said political analyst Ayaz Amir, who is running for parliament on the ticket led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. "Musharraf's group is afraid of the new mood sweeping the country, and they're looking for a way out."

Musharraf is to address the nation Wednesday night, and he is expected to offer reasons why the elections should not go ahead next week.


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