WaPo : Pakistani Opposition Weighs Street Protests

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Pakistani Opposition Weighs Street Protests

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

By Griff Witte and Emily Wax | Washington Post Foreign Service | January 2, 2008

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 sometime after Feb. 8.

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

He is also likely to discuss Bhutto's assassination, and aides said he may provide his answer to a rising chorus of demands for an internationally led investigation.

Bhutto was killed as she was leaving a daytime rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. The gun-and-bomb attack was caught on tape, and images have been broadcast around the world of a well-dressed, clean-shaven man with sunglasses walking up to her vehicle and apparently shooting her at close range.

Police have released photos of the alleged gunman's head, which was recovered from the crime scene after the man apparently died in the suicide blast that followed his shots. On Tuesday, they offered a reward for information leading to the man's identity.

Despite all the evidence, there is no consensus on how Bhutto died. The government said the day after the attack that she had not been shot but had hit her head on a sunroof lever due to the force of the explosion.

Government officials have since apologized for being crude in the way they described her death, but are sticking to their story.

Rehman said Tuesday that she helped bathe Bhutto's body before she was laid to rest and that there is no doubt she was shot. Still, the controversy persists because Bhutto was buried without an autopsy.

Pakistan's political turmoil, which has overshadowed everything else in the country, made for a muted first day of the new year. Many people here were pessimistic that 2008 will bring any calm.

"The country has already suffered so much. Can't we honor Bhutto's legacy by making peace?" said Muddassir Masood, 33, who works in the cellphone industry. "But everyone has an agenda now. Bhutto's party wants the election held because it will get the sympathy vote. The government knows that and wants to put it off. But as always, this is politics in Pakistan, and as always, it is the Pakistanis who will suffer if there is street violence."

Zia Kazim, 59, a pilot with Pakistan International Airlines who was having New Year's dinner with his wife, a hotel owner, said he was relieved that the couple's two adult children are living in Richmond, Va.

"There will be violence if the election is held on January 8th or violence if it's postponed. Basically the country is stuck in quicksand," he said. "Things in Pakistan are, unfortunately, only getting worse."

Wax reported from Islamabad. Special correspondent Shahzad Khurram in Rawalpindi contributed to this report.