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Pakistan's top party nominates Zardari

The legislative vote to choose a president is set for Sept. 6.

August 23, 2008|Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King | Special to The Times

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — The senior party in Pakistan's ruling coalition inaugurated a push Friday to elect its leader, Asif Ali Zardari, as the country's next president.

A spokeswoman for the Pakistan People's Party, Sherry Rehman, said the party's decision to back Zardari was unanimous.

Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 military coup, resigned as president Monday rather than face impeachment.

Zardari, who took over the People's Party after his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in December, is a divisive figure in Pakistan. Though her death wins him some sympathy from the public, allegations of large-scale corruption have clung to him since his tenure in his wife's Cabinet in the 1990s.

Foes still trot out his derisive nickname from those days: "Mr. 10%," for his alleged kickback demands.

Zardari is sufficiently controversial that when he became party leader, his college-age son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, was named ceremonial co-chairman, with Zardari serving as a kind of regent. The younger Bhutto, a student at Oxford, is legally too young to enter politics.

Pakistan's Election Commission on Friday set a date of Sept. 6 for the presidential election, which is to be held by federal and provincial lawmakers.

The People's Party is in the midst of a power struggle with its coalition partner, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, over the reinstatement of dozens of senior judges fired last year by Musharraf.

Sharif has given a Wednesday deadline for the judges to be reseated, threatening to otherwise leave the coalition. Zardari has agreed in principle to restore the judiciary but is thought to fear the revival of corruption cases against him.

Even without the support of Sharif's party, the People's Party could probably muster enough support to get Zardari elected, analysts say. Sharif's party has said that the presidential candidate should come from one of Pakistan's smaller provinces but that it might stand behind Zardari if the judges issue is settled.

Zardari and Sharif are longtime rivals, however, and their distaste for each other has been increasingly apparent in recent days.

If the coalition collapses, the People's Party, which took the largest share of votes in February parliamentary elections, probably could cobble together a new alliance with smaller parties.

Meanwhile, the death toll in an insurgent attack Thursday against Pakistan's main munitions complex rose to 78, officials said. Pakistan's Taliban movement claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings, which came as one shift of workers was leaving and another arriving. At least two and possibly three bombers blew themselves up in coordinated strikes at the gates of the sprawling compound northwest of the capital, Islamabad.

Early today, authorities reported, a suicide bomber attacked a police station in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least six officers.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer King from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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