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Pakistan awaits election decision, stocks fall

Islamabad, December 31, 2007

Pakistani electoral officials hold an emergency meeting on Monday to decide whether to go ahead with a January poll in a nation plunged into crisis by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Bhutto's killing in a suicide attack on Thursday has stoked bloodshed across the country and rage against President Pervez Musharraf, casting doubts on nuclear-armed Pakistan's stability and its transition to civilian rule.

Pakistani stocks fell around 4.5 percent in early trade on Monday as Bhutto's assassination worried investors that political instability could damage the $145 billion economy. The markets had been closed for three days of mourning.

'This was inevitable,' said Asad Iqbal, managing director at Ismail Iqbal Securities Ltd. 'Most small investors are trying to get out due to the events of last week.'    

A promising investment story less than a year ago, Pakistan is now gripped by fears of capital flight if security worsens. The death toll from violence since Bhutto's killing has reached 47.

On Sunday, Bhutto's party chose her son and husband to succeed her, but doubts grew about whether the parliamentary election aiming to shift Pakistan from military to civilian rule would take place as planned on January  8.

Her 19-year-old son Bilawal, introduced at a news conference in Naudero in the south as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, said the party's long struggle for democracy would avenge her death. 'My mother always said, democracy is the best revenge,' he said.

Major Pakistani cities stirred back to life on Monday for the first time since Bhutto's assassination, emerging from the unrest that had paralysed trade and commerce.

The biggest city Karachi, a virtual ghost town at the weekend after rioters went on a rampage burning shops, banks and cars began to get back to work.

Banks and shops rolled up shutters, cars and motorcycles returned to the streets and some petrol pumps opened for business after a three-day shut-down.

But there were none of the usual traffic jams in the bustling city of 14 million people, where schools were still closed and many workers remained at home four days after Bhutto was slain.

'The situation is still very shaky right now. Everyone is afraid,' said 25-year-old Mohsin Siddiqi, who works in the treasury department at Unilever in Karachi.

'One good thing is the (Bhutto) party has called for peace and will take part in elections. Hopefully, that will help things calm down ... Life is gradually returning to normal.'    

A former ruling party official said the election in Pakistan, a key US ally against terrorism, was likely to be delayed for up to two months. But Bhutto's party vowed to take part and another opposition party led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said it probably would, too.

The Election Commission, which meets on Monday, said on Saturday its offices in 11 districts in Sindh province in the south of the country had been burned and voting material including electoral rolls destroyed.

Security fears in two northwestern regions also raised doubts about voting there, it said.

'Despite this dangerous situation, we will go for elections, according to her will and thinking,' said Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari, made co-chairman of the PPP party with their son Bilawal, from the Bhutto home in Naudero in southern Pakistan.

However, the official of the former ruling party backing Musharraf said: 'It seems more than likely that elections will be delayed.'    

Bhutto had hoped to win power for a third time in the January vote though analysts expected a three-way split between her, Nawaz Sharif's party and the party that backs Musharraf.

Washington had encouraged Bhutto, relatively liberal by Pakistan's standards and an opponent of Islamic militancy. She returned ho


Tags: Pakistan | Bhutto | Election |

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