Pakistan: Election Postponed

Pervez Musharraf was calm, confident and—despite a flurry of rumors—not about to announce his resignation. Instead, the Pakistani president's "concession" to his troubled nation was an announcement that he would allow Britain's Scotland Yard to help local law enforcement agencies with their investigation into last week's assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Speaking in a nationally televised address two hours after Pakistan's election commission announced the postponement of the ballot to Feb. 18, six weeks later than had been scheduled, Musharraf was notably deferential in his remarks about Bhutto, often invoking her "martyrdom" and extolling her liberal democratic credentials. "May she go to heaven," he said. "I stand for the same things she said."

Imploring the media not to "compound the confusion" over Bhutto's assassination, he said his request for Scotland Yard assistance had been accepted by the British government. "I want to get to the bottom of this," he said, adding that new evidence and deficiencies in local expertise had informed his decision. Until today Musharraf's government, including the interim prime minister, had rejected repeated demands from Bhutto's party and the local and foreign press for such an inquiry.

As expected, Musharraf blamed the electoral postponement on the rioting and looting across Pakistan, particularly in Sind province. "I know people feel sad, despondent and angry," he said. "I feel the same way." Musharraf said troops were being called out, for a period likely to extend beyond the new polling date, to restore normalcy to Pakistan's streets—by force, if necessary. "People are roaming around with machine guns and rocket launchers, and there is a political and ethnic tint to the violence," he said.

Musharraf held Islamic militants Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan and Fazal Ullah in the Swat district responsible for the recent attacks on his former ministers, soldiers and employees of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency. "These same people assassinated Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto," he said pointedly, using a term of respect for the slain leader. Musharraf called on the people and media to "launch a campaign" against the two militants.

Many Pakistanis were skeptical about Musharraf's comments. "Musharraf wants a popular and media campaign against Baitullah Mehsud," said Syed Mansoor Hussain, a columnist for an English-language newspaper in Lahore. "How about a military campaign instead?"

Asif Zardari, Bhutto's husband and co-chairman of her Pakistan People's Party, also rejected Musharraf's remarks, saying that he was still pressing for a United Nations inquiry similar to the one conducted after the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. "We don't believe in the politics of confrontation," a visibly upset Zardari told a media conference in Naudero soon after Musharraf's televised appearance. "We want to tell the administration not to force our hand." Claiming that thousands of PPP workers had been jailed, Zardari also invoked powerful Shia iconography, the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad's grandson, in his attack on Musharraf's political party. "The 'murderer league' has disrupted the caravan of Hussain," he said.

Asked about the 160-page dossier on allegations of planned electoral rigging that Bhutto was to present to two U.S. lawmakers on the day of her assassination, hours after her fateful last speech, Zardari said, "This is the greatest rigging: they have eliminated our leader."

Ironically, that comment highlighted just how deep a leadership vacuum Bhutto has left behind. With Bhutto's children back in Dubai and the killing slowly becoming yesterday's news, Zardari, who says he's not a candidate for prime minister and whose reputation is still sullied after spending years in prison on corruption charges, may find it increasingly difficult to convince voters to cast their ballots for his wife's party next month.