Bhutto's party to decide on successor

Bhutto's party to decide on successor

( Reuters ) - Benazir Bhutto's party was due to discuss a successor to the slain Pakistani opposition leader on Sunday and decide whether to contest an election due in little over a week.

Bhutto's assassination in a suicide attack on Thursday has stoked violence and thrown into doubt the January 8 election, deepening the crisis in the key U.S. ally against terrorism as it struggles to emerge from military rule.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party has dismissed government accusations that she was killed by al Qaeda, saying President Pervez Musharraf's embattled administration was trying to cover up its failure to protect her.

Without the charismatic Bhutto, 54, her party is in disarray.

Bhutto's 19-year-old son, Bilawal, is to read her will on Sunday but the Oxford law student is seen as too young to lead a dynasty whose history is entwined with that of Pakistan.

The choice of a successor lies between Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and her top aide, Makhdoom Amin Fahim.

"Everybody in the party knows that they have to stick to the legacy of Bhutto and without that legacy, they are nobody," said Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times.

The party leadership, due to meet in Bhutto's home town of Naudero in southern Pakistan, must also decide whether to contest the election if it goes ahead.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's opposition party has said it would boycott the vote and has been trying to convince Bhutto's PPP to do likewise.

So far the government has not announced any decision to call off or postpone the vote, but the Election Commission says it is planning an emergency meeting on Monday.

Although U.S. President George W. Bush has urged Pakistanis to hold the election, a White House spokesman said it was up to Pakistan's authorities to determine the timing.

Washington had encouraged Bhutto, relatively liberal by Pakistan's standards and an opponent of Islamic militancy. She returned home from self-imposed exile in October, hoping to become prime minister for the third time.

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 last month to become a civilian president.

When asked by the BBC on Saturday if he wanted to take over the party leadership, Bhutto's husband replied "It depends on the party and it depends on the will."

Zardari can ooze charm, and gained respect for enduring eight years in jail before being released without being convicted. However, political foes accuse him of corruption and many PPP loyalists blame him for tainting the Bhutto name.

Many PPP leaders are from Bhutto's land-owning feudal class, yet the party also has a big following among the uneducated poor yearning for democracy.

Anger against Musharraf burns strongly among Bhutto's supporters and Pakistan remained on edge after the violence that followed the killing. The death toll since then stood at 44.

A close aide who prepared Bhutto's body for burial dismissed as "ludicrous" a government theory that she died after hitting her head on a sunroof during the suicide attack. A party spokesman said she was shot in the head.

The PPP has said the government must also show hard evidence al Qaeda is to blame. The al Qaeda-linked militants who were accused have denied any role in the killing. A spokesman for militant leader Baitullah Mehsud said "We don't strike women."

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