KARACHI, Pakistan — The confrontation between U.S.-backed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and opposition groups deepened Tuesday after authorities said that holding parliamentary elections on January 8 appeared "impossible" following the killing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Opposition leaders repeated their demands that the voting proceed as scheduled.
The hard lines taken by both sides heightened the possibility that opposition parties could call their supporters into the streets if the vote is postponed. An announcement on the election date had been expected Tuesday, but the Election Commission said it would come Wednesday.
"Our position is very clear. We believe there is absolutely no justification or grounds for a postponement of the elections," said Mian Raza Rabbani, a senior official of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party who leads the opposition in parliament's upper house.
He said the PPP would decide how to respond to a postponement after consultation with other opposition parties.
The country of 165 million has been reeling from three days of violence that claimed more than 50 lives and destroyed millions of dollars of property following Bhutto's Dec. 27 assassination in a gun-and-suicide bombing attack in the city of Rawalpindi.
Pakistan is also struggling to contain a bloody insurgency by Islamic extremists allied with al Qaida and the Taliban that has grown in response to Musharraf's heavy-handed use of force under pressure from the Bush administration.
More political unrest could further destabilize the impoverished nuclear-armed nation by emboldening the insurgents and undermining an economy battered by two successive days of huge stock market losses and a plunging currency.
The Election Commission, which is widely believed to follow Musharraf's orders, said it would announce its decision on a postponement of the elections after consulting with major political parties.
Election Commission Secretary Kanwar Dilashad, said, however, that "it looks impossible" to hold the vote next week because 13 district election offices in Bhutto's home province of Sindh had been destroyed in the unrest following her death.
Opposition officials scoffed at the statement, saying the vote need only be postponed in those districts.
The PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-N of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appear anxious to profit from the massive sympathy generated by Bhutto's slaying and a growing revulsion for Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 military coup. He stepped down as army chief and lifted a state of emergency last month after a legally questionable re-election as president.
Musharraf's credibility has also suffered from conflicting versions of the cause of Bhutto's death that the government has issued.
It continued to maintain Tuesday that she died after the bomb blast drove her head into a part of her vehicle's sunroof, even though video footage shows a gunman firing a pistol at her and her scarf and hair flying up, apparently from the bullet's impact.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the faction loyal to Musharraf, "is now on a weaker standing compared to the Peoples Party, which has gained a huge boost" since Bhutto died, said Amir Ishaq, a professor of international relations at National Urdu University in Karachi.
PML-Q leaders have dismissed suggestions that the PPP could be swept to power by a sympathy vote. They said they are ready to contest elections, but that conditions are not conducive in the wake of the violence that followed Bhutto's slaying.
Political experts said Musharraf also apparently believes that the longer the polls are delayed, the greater the chances that rifts could erupt within the PPP over the selection on Sunday of Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, a former businessman dogged by corruption allegations, and their 19-year-old son, to replace her.
"I think the government has a sense that given some more time, the high unity levels cannot be maintained," said Aijaz Haider, an analyst with the weekly Friday Times.