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Bhutto widower proposed for Pakistan president

Bhutto widower proposed for Pakistan president

Pakistan's largest political party on Friday proposed the widower of assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto become the country's new president _ but with the ruling coalition on the verge of collapse his election appeared far from assured.
Asif Ali Zardari, who is emerging as the favorite in the Sept. 6 election, criticized Pervez Musharraf for his long, authoritarian rule but would likely continue the ousted strongman's support for the U.S. war on terror.
His ascent would dismay many ordinary Pakistanis, who view him as a symbol of the sleaze that tainted the country's last experiment with democracy in the 1990s.
But the 52-year-old has done nothing to tamp down a chorus of support for him to take a post that retains many of the powers accumulated during Musharraf's nine-year rule.
"If the major political party believes that he is the most talented person, then he is the most eligible person for this post," said Nabeel Gabol, one of the leaders of Zardari's Pakistan People's Party who gave him unanimous support at a meeting on Friday.
Party spokeswoman Sherry Rehman said Zardari promised to announce whether to accept the nomination within 24 hours.
A presidency for Zardari _ or a figure under his control _ would cap an extraordinary period of transformation for Pakistani politics during which both of Washington's most likely allies have been removed from the scene.
Zardari only returned to Pakistan from long years in exile when his wife was assassinated in a gun-and-bomb attack in December.
Bhutto, a liberal who courted Western governments and pledged a tough line against Islamic militants, had come back two months before under a deal with Musharraf expected to see them share power after February parliamentary elections.
Musharraf, who stepped down as army chief in November, had by then issued a deeply controversial order quashing long-standing corruption charges against the couple.
Zardari acquired the nickname Mr. Ten Percent for allegedly pocketing kickbacks on government contracts during Bhutto's two premierships _ charges he rejects as a fabrication of his political opponents and which never produced a conviction.
But the ex-general became politically untouchable for Bhutto after imposing emergency rule in order to remove Supreme Court judges poised to block his plan to remain as a civilian ruler.
The turmoil propelled Musharraf's allies to a stinging defeat in the elections and thrust Zardari into an alliance with Sharif _ united mainly by opposition to the unpopular ex-general.
With Musharraf's resignation to avoid impeachment, the two sides have wrangled over how to restore the judges and whether Musharraf should face prosecution as well as who should succeed him.
The election commission announced Friday that federal and provincial lawmakers will elect the new president in simultaneous votes on Sept. 6.
Candidates, it said, must file their nomination papers on Aug. 26 leaving only four days for the parties to field their candidates.
And already Zardari has begun intense political horse-trading with coalition partner Nawaz Sharif.
Lieutenants of Sharif, who leads the second-largest party in the coalition, say the next president should hail from one of the two smallest provinces _ Baluchistan or North West Frontier. That would exclude Zardari, who is from Sindh.
Zardari himself has suggested that a woman take the job _ prompting speculation that parliamentary speaker Fehmida Mirza, who bears an eerie resemblance to his late wife _ or even his sister, a minor politician, could step up.
But a national newspaper forecast Friday that Zardari will take the presidency so that no one else can secure its power to dissolve parliament.
Polls suggest that Sharif, who tapped popular rejection of Musharraf and his close alliance with the U.S., would make significant gains in the event of fresh elections.
The Lahore-based Daily Times also argued that Zardari was well-suited because he had eased Musharraf out without alienating Pakistan's powerful army. The president appoints the military chiefs.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said Zardari unlikely to dilute Pakistan's close alliance with Washington.
"The logic will be that a powerful individual with national support, which Zardari might get, will be more effective to deal with the question of terrorism," Rais said.
But Zardari is not the kind of neutral figure which some say Pakistan needs as president to help clear up the constitutional mess left behind by Musharraf's emergency rule.
"He is a party leader, and in parliamentary system the party leaders become prime ministers," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst.
"Will Zardari as party leader accept a subsidiary role, or will he dominate the prime minister and function more like Gen. Musharraf?" he said.
There was no immediate reaction from Sharif.
However, there were signs that his party was close to snapping.
Sharif claimed earlier Friday that Zardari had reneged on a written pledge to restore the ousted judges within 24 hours of Musharraf's ouster. He set a new deadline of Wednesday to put the justices back on the bench only for another minor coalition party to contradict him, saying it would likely take longer.
"If they could not honor their promises in writing, how can we rely on verbal promises. It is better now to quit this coalition as soon as possible," Khwaja Mohammad Asif, a senior Sharif aide told the Geo television channel late Friday.
Sharif argues that a simple order from the prime minister is enough to restore the judges. But Zardari has consistently blocked that, arguing that it requires a constitutional amendment.
Many see that as a device to ensure that the court does not reopen corruption investigations against him. It would also prevent them from aiding Sharif's pursuit of Musharraf, who toppled his government in a 1999 coup.
Many citizens as well as the country's Western backers are urging their leaders to quickly get over the current hiatus and do something about runaway inflation, slowing economic growth and inexorably rising violence.
That need was rammed home on Thursday by twin Taliban suicide bombings that killed 67 people at the country's biggest weapons manufacturing complex, just 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad.
On Friday, security forces killed 16 militants, including two suspected suicide bombers, in a clash in another troubled area of the northwest, officials said.
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Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Munir Ahmad contributed to this report.


Updated : 2020-12-04 16:55 GMT+08:00