ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan elections will be delayed by one month following the turmoil sparked by Benazir Bhutto's assassination, despite opposition threats of street protests unless the crucial vote is held Jan. 8 as originally planned, a top official said Tuesday.
A senior Election Commission official told The Associated Press that the commission has agreed on a new date. He indicated it would not be before the second week of February, but refused to disclose the exact schedule before the formal announcement on Wednesday.
The opposition is likely to accuse authorities of postponing the polls to help the ruling party, which is allied to President Pervez Musharraf. Many believe Bhutto's party could get a sympathy boost if the vote takes place on time. Bhutto had accused elements in the ruling party of plotting to kill her, a charge which it vehemently denies.
The killing of Bhutto, a former prime minister, triggered three days of nationwide riots that killed 58 people and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. Bhutto's home province of Sindh was especially hard hit and the army was called on the streets. Ten election offices were burned.
"We need at least one month to make arrangements to hold free and fair elections after the damage caused to our offices in the Sindh province," the official said, adding that the commission had already consulted the main political parties about the delay. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the decision.
In addition to logistical problems arising from the destruction caused by the rioting, he said the caretaker governments of all four provinces of Pakistan had suggested the vote not be held during the holy month of Muharram from Jan. 10 through Feb. 8, because they could not guarantee security. Sectarian violence often breaks out between Pakistan's Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
The polls are seen as crucial to restoring democracy after eight years of military rule and following a six-week state of emergency that Musharraf declared in November.
Opposition groups have demanded the elections proceed on time, and Nawaz Sharif, leader of another opposition party, threatened street protests if they were postponed.
Bhutto's party, certain to win sympathy votes in a quick election, accused Musharraf of wanting a delay to allow anger over her death to evaporate.
"There have been elections in conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan so I find it difficult to understand why this election cannot be held on time," Sherry Rehman, a spokeswoman for Bhutto's party, told Dawn News TV.
Britain and the United States were also eager for the vote to take place as scheduled, but have indicated they would accept a slight delay.
Meanwhile, a top aide of Bhutto revealed that on the day she was killed, the opposition leader was planning to give two U.S. lawmakers a 160-page dossier accusing the government of rigging the elections.
Bhutto was killed Thursday evening in a shooting and bombing attack on her vehicle as she left a campaign rally. She had been scheduled to meet hours later with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island.
Sen. Latif Khosa, a lawmaker from Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party, said she had planned to give the lawmakers a report outlining complaints on "pre-poll rigging" by Musharraf's government and the military-run Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
Khosa said he did not know if Bhutto's killing was linked to her plans to release the document. Officials at the Information Ministry and the Interior Ministry declined comment. The government has denied charges of vote rigging and said it had nothing to do with Bhutto's death.
The dossier outlined several instances of electoral interference, including one case where an officer from the intelligence services sat nearby as an election official rejected nomination papers from opposition candidates, Khosa said. Another official stopped a candidate from filing his nomination in the southwestern Baluchistan province, said Khosa, who wrote the report as head of the party's election team.
"The elections were to be thoroughly rigged, and the king's party was to benefit in the electoral process," he said, referring to the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q.
The evidence was based on complaints by party candidates and information from sources in the security services, he said.
Despite accusing the government of rigging the vote, Bhutto had rejected calls for a boycott, saying she did not want leave the field open for Musharraf's loyalists.
Since Bhutto's slaying, the government has come under harsh criticism for its security arrangements for her, its claim that an Islamic militant was behind her death and its conclusion that it was the force of the blast and not gunshot wounds that killed her.
Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, has led calls for an international, independent investigation into the attack.
The government rejected this, but said in a statement that its own investigation would be thorough and transparent and "will not shy away from receiving assistance from outside, if needed."
U.S. officials said the United States had quietly joined calls for international experts to join the probe and expected investigators from Britain's Scotland Yard to play a significant role.
As part of the investigation, the government took out newspaper ads offering a 162,000 reward for information about her killers. The ad shows a fuzzy still frame from a video featuring the presumed shooter and bomber seconds before the attack, and a photograph of the bomber's severed head.