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Pakistani Election Politics

Parliamentary elections originally scheduled for January 8 have been postponed until February 18, according to the Pakistani Electoral Commission. And after mounting public pressure, President Pervez Musharraf announced Wednesday that a small team of British investigators from Scotland Yard will assist in the Pakistani government’s inquiry into the questionable circumstances surrounding former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Rawalpindi last week. Musharraf’s government has apparently come to the realization that instability and violence will continue until circumstances surrounding Bhutto’s death are objectively clarified. Nonetheless, Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) continues to press for an independent United Nations investigation as the only way to get to the truth.

Since an earlier assassination attempt in October upon her return to Pakistan from self-imposed exile, the former prime minister had repeatedly appealed to the government for better security. Speaking from Lahore, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid says he frankly does not “see anyone believing whatever the government’s claims will be.” In a conversation with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Rashid says he believes it is “absolutely vital” for the international community to press for an independent investigation. But Washington has praised President Musharraf’s plan to bring in British investigators and has welcomed the announcement of a “date certain” for parliamentary elections. Behind the scenes, the Bush administration has reportedly launched a campaign to persuade the Musharraf government to free democratic activists and lawyers, lift press restrictions, and allow international observers into polling stations to ensure that the delayed election is deemed credible.

Such measures will be critical to garner the shattered confidence of most of the citizens. Ahmed Rashid says the thinking of most politicians and the media is that there is going to be “large-scale rigging” of the election. Pakistani journalist Husain Haqqani, director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations, says that even before Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the PPP “would have won in a free and fair election.” And now there is what he calls an “immense sympathy wave.”

Jeremy Page, South Asian correspondent for The Times of London, says he spoke with Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari, who said he hoped to convert “some of the anger and frustration of the Pakistani people into a democratic force in the country.” Mr. Page notes that there is an “incredible faith in the Bhutto family” because of the important role it has played in Pakistani politics over the past 60 years. However, the weeks ahead in Pakistan are fraught with dangers – the possibility of severe civil unrest and the prospects of further terrorist activity.