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Pakistan parties differ on Musharraf's successor

Pakistan parties differ on Musharraf's successor

Pakistan's largest political party wants the husband of assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto to succeed ousted Pervez Musharraf as president _ but its main partner in the fragile ruling coalition government has ideas of its own.
With elections by lawmakers now set for Sept. 6, the pressure is on for the two sides to come to some sort of agreement.
Asif Ali Zardari, leader of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, is emerging as the favorite. He criticized Musharraf for his long, authoritarian rule but would likely continue the former general's support for the U.S. war against extremist groups.
However, Zardari's ascent would dismay many Pakistanis, who view him as a symbol of the sleaze that tainted the country's last experiment with civilian rule in the 1990s. He won the nickname "Mr. 10 Percent" for alleged corruption during his wife's turns as prime minister.
And, with the governing coalition that drove Musharraf to resign this week now teetering on the verge of collapse, Zardari's nomination is not certain. He is engaged in intense political horse-trading with the leader of the other key party, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was a bitter rival of Bhutto.
Sharif's party has been threatening to bolt from the coalition in a struggle over power.
It thinks the next president should hail from one of Pakistan's two smallest provinces _ Baluchistan or North West Frontier _ and that the person should not be linked to either of the main parties in the ruling coalition.
"The new president should be from one of the smaller provinces," said Sharif's spokesman Sadiqul Farooq, which would exclude Zardari, who comes from the southern province of Sindh.
"It should be a neutral person, a non-politician, because the president is the head of the state and a symbol of the federation," he said.
Many citizens, as well as Pakistan's Western backers, are urging the parties to resolve political issues and turn their attention to runaway inflation, slowing economic growth and inexorably rising violence by Islamic militants entrenched along the border with Afghanistan.
That need has been rammed home by a string of deadly suicide bombings claimed by Taliban militants in recent days.
A car bombing at a police station in northwestern Pakistan killed at least six officers Saturday. Two days earlier, twin suicide bombings killed 67 people at the country's biggest weapons manufacturing complex, just 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad.
After seeking to tame militant groups in peace negotiations, the government has been entangled in recent weeks in increased fighting with hard-line Islamic movements along the border. Militant violence began intensifying after Musharraf ordered soldiers to seize a radical mosque in Islamabad during a bloody battle in July 2007.
According to Associated Press reporting, at least 110 militant attacks have been launched on government, military or police targets since the mosque siege and about 20 attacks have targeted civilians. At least 60 of all those attacks were suicide bombings
The total violence since July 2007, which includes some fighting not initiated by militants, has resulted in the deaths of at least 350 soldiers, 120 police, 470 civilians and 1,000 militants, based on AP reporting.
The 52-year-old Zardari did not immediately accept his party's nomination, but he had done nothing to tamp down the recent chorus from supporters calling 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 of Zardari's Pakistan People's Party, which gave the leader unanimous support at a meeting Friday.
Party spokeswoman Sherry Rehman said Zardari promised to announce whether he would accept the nomination within 24 hours.
"Now it depends on him whether he himself becomes (president) or nominates someone else," Gabol said.
A presidency for Zardari _ or a figure under his control _ would cap an extraordinary transformation of Pakistani politics that has removed both of Washington's most likely allies from the scene.
Zardari only returned to Pakistan from years in exile after his wife was assassinated in a gun-and-bomb attack last December.
Bhutto, a liberal who courted Western governments and pledged a tough line against Islamic militants, had come back two months before under a U.S.-encouraged deal with Musharraf expected to see them share power after February parliamentary elections.
Musharraf, who gave up his dual post of army chief in November to rule as a civilian president, had by then issued a controversial order quashing corruption charges against Bhutto and her husband.
But Musharraf became a political untouchable even for Bhutto after he imposed emergency rule so he could remove Supreme Court judges poised to block his plan to remain as a civilian ruler.
The turmoil resulted in a stinging defeat for Musharraf's allies in the February elections and thrust Zardari into an alliance with Sharif united mainly by opposition to the unpopular ex-general.
Once Musharraf resigned Monday to head off impeachment, the two biggest parties in the government have wrangled over how to restore the fired judges, whether Musharraf should face prosecution and who should succeed him.
Zardari previously suggested a woman should get 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 some observers view a candidacy by the man who already wields great power from behind the scenes as logical.
A national newspaper predicted Friday that Zardari will take the presidency so that no one else can secure its power to appoint the chiefs of the military or to dissolve parliament.
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Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Stephen Graham contributed to this report.