Pakistan plans to postpone next week's election after Benazir Bhutto's killing sparked turmoil in the nuclear-armed country, but officials put off a final announcement until Wednesday to consult parties.
The opposition leader's assassination on Thursday triggered bloodshed and rage against President Pervez Musharraf, casting doubts on Pakistan's stability and the transition to democratic rule in the country, a front-line ally in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.
Election Commission official Kanwar Dilshad told reporters on Tuesday that in principle the election was being delayed from January 8 and a new date would be announced on Wednesday.
The death toll from violence since Bhutto's killing was 58, the Interior Ministry said, but on Tuesday the situation in the country was relatively calm.
Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which can expect to reap a considerable sympathy vote after Bhutto's murder, and the other main opposition party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, want the election to go ahead as scheduled.
It is up to the people of Pakistan to choose their future, and the time is now, Sharif and Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, now co-chairman of her party along with their 19-year old son, Bilawal, said in a joint statement.
The January 8th elections must proceed as scheduled. This will not only be a tribute to the memory of Benazir Bhutto, but even more important, a reaffirmation of the cause of democracy for which she died, they said.
Zardari said a delay would serve no purpose.
Tomorrow, suppose they postpone elections for 10 days, 15 days or one month and there is another assassination then what will happen?, he told Reuters Television.
What guarantee there is that once they postpone the elections the situation will be under control?
VOTER ROLLS BURNT
The Election Commission has said many of its offices in Sindh, Bhutto's home province in the south, were burnt in rioting after her murder, and election material including voter rolls reduced to ashes.
We will inform the political parties about the situation in Sindh where our 13 offices were burnt. We will inform them about the ground realities and then we will fix a date in consultation with them, Dilshad said.
Analysts expect the vote to be postponed to late February but also say a delay could lead to violence.
The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League has said it favors a delay because of the security situation. Opponents say a delay would work to the advantage of the pro-Musharraf party.
Hundreds of Bhutto supporters protested peacefully chanting Bhutto is great and shouting slogans against Musharraf on Tuesday in the town of Larkana near Bhutto's family home, where mourning storekeepers kept their shops shut.
Police arrested 50 people in Sindh in connection with arson and vandalism in the wake of Bhutto's assassination, but the streets were calm. There was no repeat of the scenes of violence and vehicle and shop burning and no more of the killings that followed her death.
Pakistan is gripped by fears of capital flight if security worsens. Pakistan share prices were down three percent on Tuesday.
The U.S. State Department said there should not be an indefinite delay.
The key here is that there be a date certain for elections in Pakistan. We would certainly have concerns about some sort of indefinite postponement, spokesman Tom Casey said on Monday.
Bhutto, relatively liberal by Pakistan's standards and an opponent of Islamic militancy, ended her self-imposed exile in October. Hours after arriving home she narrowly escaped a suicide blast that struck her motorcade, killing about 140 people.
Her death wrecked U.S. hopes of a power-sharing deal between her and Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999 but left the army in November to become a civilian president.
The PPP has suggested Musharraf's government is trying to cover up the truth about Bhutto's killing and bears at least some of the responsibility.
The government has blamed an al Qaeda-linked militant based on the Afghan border, Baitullah Mehsud, for the attack but many Pakistanis believe Bhutto's old enemies, perhaps from within the powerful security agencies, were involved.
Musharraf is due to address the nation on Wednesday evening.
(Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz, Simon Gardner, Hamid Sheikh, Imtiaz Shah, Sahar Ahmad and Asim Tanveer; Writing by Jerry Norton; Editing by Keith Weir)