ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto demanded crucial Jan. 8 elections be held on schedule, brushing aside concerns that unrest and political turmoil triggered by her death may damage the credibility of the polls.
Pakistan's Election Commission was to meet later Monday to discuss the timing of the elections, a key step in U.S.-backed plans to restore democracy to the nuclear armed nation as it battles rising attacks by Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.
After days of rioting that left at least 44 dead, life in many Pakistani cities began returning to normal, though soldiers and police patrolled many areas. The streets were still quiet in the southern city of Karachi, the scene of some of the worst violence, witnesses said.
On Sunday, Bhutto's party named her 19-year-old son Bilawal Zardawai as its symbolic leader and left day-to-day control to her husband, extending Pakistan's most enduring political dynasty following the opposition leader's assassination.
The party immediately said it would contest the polls, perhaps sensing major electoral gains were possible amid sympathy at Bhutto's death and a widespread belief that political allies of U.S-backed President Pervez Musharraf were behind the killing.
"My mother always said democracy is the best revenge," Bilawal said late Sunday at an emotionally charged media conference at Bhutto's ancestral home. "The party's long struggle for democracy will continue with renewed vigor," he said.
The party also appealed to the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, another political enemy of Musharraf now seeking to position in himself in Pakistan's new political landscape, to reverse an earlier decision to boycott the polls.
Sharif's party later agreed.
Tariq Azim, a spokesman for the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, congratulated the decision not to seek a delay in the vote and said "we are also ready for the contest on Jan. 8." Earlier, he predicting the election may be delayed up to four months.
The appointment of Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as effective leader was not without complications. A former Cabinet minister who spent eight years in prison on corruption accusations, he is known as "Mr. 10 Percent" for allegedly taking kickbacks and is viewed with suspicion by many Pakistanis.
Zardari said the opposition party — Pakistan's largest — had no confidence in the government's ability to bring the killers to justice and urged the United Nations to establish a committee like the one investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
A statement from the British government said Musharraf had agreed to consider "potential international support" to the Pakistani investigation into the assassination, but gave no more details. It also urged Pakistan to go ahead with elections without any "significant delay."
The British and U.S. governments had been pushing Bhutto, a moderate Muslim seen as friendly to the West, to form a power-sharing agreement with Musharraf after the election — a combination seen as the most effective in the fight against al-Qaida, which is believed to be regrouping in the country's lawless tribal areas.
"It is up to the political parties in Pakistan to choose their leaders," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is vacationing. "We believe it is important for Pakistan to confront extremists and continue on the path to democracy by holding free and fair elections. The timing of those elections will be up to the Pakistanis."