'Consensus grows' for Bhutto widower to become premier

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The Independent Online

The widower of Benazir Bhutto – believed by many Pakistanis to be guilty of corruption – appears poised for a dramatic return to the prime minister's mansion on the back of a growing consensus within his party that he himself should become premier.

Less than three months after Mrs Bhutto was assassinated, sources within the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) say growing numbers of MPs and senior officials have thrown their support behind Asif Ali Zardari to become prime minister.

The propulsion of Mr Zardari to the premiership would represent a remarkable transition for the man known as "Mr 10 Per Cent" for his alleged involvement in kickback schemes when his wife was running Pakistan, and for which he spent a number of years in jail. Last week almost all of the outstanding corruption charges against him in Pakistan were dropped.

While there has yet to be a formal announcement about the PPP's preferred choice for prime minister, freshly elected parliamentarians yesterday emerged from a series of meetings with Mr Zardari, who is currently the party's co-chairman, to say "a consensus was emerging" in his favour.

"Inside the meeting, we told Mr Zardari: 'We have been pleasantly surprised by [your] ability to lead the party. We repose our confidence in you'," said Ahmed Mukhtar, a former commerce minister.

Farahnaz Ispahani, a party spokesman, said that in meetings Mr Zardari had asked party members who they wished to see as prime minister. She added: "Most people have said, 'Mr Co-Chairman, we give you the prerogative. It's up to you'. Wave after wave, people have started saying that a consensus has built up that they would prefer someone who is strong and has leadership qualities."

It is possible that Mr Zardari's apparent thrust towards the premiership is the result of spin from his supporters, and in recent days there has certainly been evidence of intense fighting within the party.

Makhdoom Amin Fahim, once considered an obvious PPP candidate for prime minister, appears to have been sidelined by the party leadership and their coalition allies in former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's party. Mr Fahim angrily denounced the decision to not invite him to a major meeting at the weekend.

As Mr Zardari did not stand for a parliamentary seat in last month's elections, he would only be eligible to stand for prime minister after a by-election in three months' time. There are suggestions a minor party may stand in for him during the interim.

But Mr Zardari may encounter a legal hurdle. A law introduced by President Pervez Musharraf requires all members of parliament to be graduates. Mr Zardari has said that he received a "B.Ed" from the London School of Business Studies. But an administrator at the institute said they did not offer any degree courses. "We are a private college, not a university," he said.

News of the party's apparent backing for Mr Zardari came as two suicide bombers killed at least 24 people in huge explosions in Lahore. More than 200 people were injured by the blasts, which occurred within 15 minutes of each other yesterday morning.

The first blast happened at the building of the Federal Investigation Agency as staff were arriving for work. Police said an explosives-laden car was driven into an adjoining car-park before it was detonated. At least 21 people died, including a three-year-old girl.

The second explosion took place at the office of an advertising agency in a residential part of the city, around 15 miles away. Police investigator Tasaddaq Hussain said two children and the wife of the office's gardener were killed.