Zardari proposed for Pakistan president

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The Independent Online

Pakistan's main ruling party today proposed the widower of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto as the country's next president.

The move makes Asif Ali Zardari the clear front-runner to fill the leadership vacuum created by the resignation of US ally Pervez Musharraf on Monday.

But it could also hasten the collapse of a ruling coalition that has struggled to tackle serious economic problems and the growing strength of Taliban militants.

Pakistan's election commission announced Friday that federal and provincial lawmakers will elect Musharraf's successor in simultaneous votes on September 6th. Candidates must file their nomination papers on August 26th.

Sherry Rehman, a spokeswoman for the Pakistan People's Party, said the backing for Zardari at a meeting of its top decision-making body on Friday was unanimous.

"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, another party leader.

"Now it depends on him whether he himself becomes (president) or nominates someone else," Gabol said.

But Nawaz Sharif, head of the second-largest party in the ruling coalition, has suggested that the next president should be from one of the two smallest provinces — Baluchistan or North West Frontier. That would exclude Zardari, who hails from the southern province of Sindh.

Rehman said Zardari told the gathering that he would announce whether to accept the nomination within 24 hours.

Zardari has played down his ambitions in public. However, he has done nothing to prevent a growing band of supporters from touting his name for as post. Analysts say he looks assured of victory if he runs.

Zardari leads a coalition that swept Musharraf's supporters aside in February parliamentary elections.

The alliance vowed to strip the presidency of the powers accumulated by Musharraf, who resigned Monday to avoid impeachment charges, including the right to dissolve parliament and appoint the chiefs of Pakistan's powerful military.

But it quickly became mired in wrangling over other issues, principally how to restore judges purged from the Supreme Court when Musharraf imposed emergency rule last year.

Sharif, a two-time prime minister whom polls suggest is Pakistan's most popular politician, has repeatedly threatened to go into opposition if the judges are not restored quickly.

On Friday, he set next Wednesday as a deadline for the judges to return to the bench — the third such ultimatum since Musharraf stepped down.

A leader of a powerful lawyers' movement that has mounted street protests in favor of the judges issued a veiled warning against any further backsliding.

"Many promises to the nation have not been honored," Tariq Mehmood said. "If somebody thinks that people will be satisfied after Musharraf's removal, let me tell you that people want the rule of law."

Sharif argues that a simple order from the prime minister is enough to restore the judges. But Zardari has consistently blocked that, saying that it requires a constitutional amendment.

Musharraf, who was also army chief until November, imposed emergency rule and purged the Supreme Court to prevent it from disqualifying him from continuing as a civilian president.

Zardari, like Musharraf, accuses the judges of being too political.

Analysts suggest his hostility toward the court could also reflect concern that they could reopen long-standing corruption cases against him dating back to his wife's two spells as prime minister in the 1990s.

Sharif, meanwhile, may view the judges as likely allies if he follows through with threats to have Musharraf tried for treason — a charge punishable by death.

Ordinary Pakistan is as well as the country's Western backers, especially the United States, are urging the feuding parties to set aside their bickering and do something about runaway inflation and rising violence.

The need for strong leadership was rammed home on Thursday by twin suicide bombings that killed 67 people in one of the country's worst-ever terrorist attacks.

More than 100 others were injured by the explosions at the country's biggest weapons manufacturing complex, just 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad.

The carnage could have been greater: Authorities arrested a man they believe would have been a third bomber not far from the scene, said local police official Mohammed Saeed. He said an explosives jacket was found at a nearby mosque.

A spokesman for Pakistani Taliban groups has claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were revenge for ongoing military operations in Bajur, a militant stronghold on the Afghan border.

More than 200,000 people have fled the conflict, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The fighting in the remote area has reportedly killed hundreds.

On Friday, security forces killed 16 militants, including two suspected suicide bombers, in a clash in another troubled area of the northwest, officials said.