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Pakistan elects new president

Asif Ali Zardari, husband of Benazir Bhutto, takes the post vacated by Musharraf. Some doubt his ability.

September 07, 2008|Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King | Special to The Times

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — The ascension of Benazir Bhutto's widower to the presidency marked an emotional moment Saturday for the slain leader's supporters, but many Pakistanis wondered whether a political novice such as Asif Ali Zardari could successfully tackle the country's daunting problems.

Chants of "Long live Bhutto!" rang out in parliamentary chambers as regional and national lawmakers cast ballots overwhelmingly electing Zardari to replace Pervez Musharraf, the longtime U.S. ally who stepped down last month to avoid impeachment charges.

The challenges awaiting Zardari, who probably will be sworn in Tuesday, include a quickly deteriorating economy, a determined Islamic insurgency and an often-uneasy relationship with Washington.

A reminder of the violence gripping the country came even as the votes were being cast. At least 30 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a police checkpoint in the northwestern city of Peshawar; and elsewhere in the restive province, 24 people died in clashes after insurgents tried to kidnap a village elder.

Zardari, 53, who married Bhutto in 1987 in an arranged union that shocked many of her friends, had said while she was alive that he had no interest in politics. Most of Bhutto's contemporaries did not regard Zardari, the polo-playing scion of a wealthy landowning clan, as her intellectual equal, and the two lived apart for the last years of her life.

He served as a minister in Bhutto's Cabinet, and became the leader of the Pakistan People's Party when the former prime minister was assassinated in December. After leading the party to victory in parliamentary elections just six weeks later, Zardari made it clear that he wanted more than a ceremonial role in government.

To form a government after the February elections, the PPP at first aligned itself with the second-biggest opposition vote-getter, the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But that partnership collapsed last month amid acrimony over whether and how to restore judges fired last year by Musharraf.

Pakistani media reports said Sharif, one of the country's most popular politicians, had telephoned Zardari to offer congratulations. His party's presidential candidate, Saeed Uzzaman Siddiqui, was second in the vote, and the candidate of Musharraf's party, Mushahid Hussain Sayed, finished last.

Zardari won 480 of the 702 electoral college votes cast, election officials said, citing an unofficial tally.

It was not yet clear whether Sharif's party would push ahead with a drive, begun with Zardari's help, to limit the constitutional powers of the presidency. While Musharraf was still in office, the two governing parties feared he might use his authority to dissolve parliament and the government.

Zardari's public image is a complicated one. His wife's assassination brought a wave of sympathy for him and the couple's three children. But many people remain deeply mistrustful of him over corruption charges dating to the 1990s; the derisive nickname given him by political opponents has never gone away: "Mr. 10%," for the kickbacks he allegedly demanded on government contracts.

Although never convicted, Zardari spent 11 years in prison in connection with the accusations of corruption and other charges. After he declared his candidacy for president, opponents questioned whether the long ordeal of detention had left him mentally unstable and unfit to govern.

Zardari, as was Bhutto, is seen as friendly to the West, a political difficulty for any Pakistani leader amid a growing furor over U.S. strikes against militants sheltering in Pakistan's tribal areas. Those have included an unusual ground raid Wednesday that killed as many as 20 people, and a number of missile strikes carried out with drone aircraft.

Pakistan denounces such incursions as a violation of its sovereignty, but many people clearly believe that Zardari has tacitly given the Bush administration the go-ahead for unilateral military action. In what may have been a bid to counter that perception, Pakistan's government announced Friday that it was suspending shipments of U.S. military supplies through the Khyber Pass, a vital supply route that runs through one of Pakistan's tribal areas and into Afghanistan.

Mindful of the sensitivities, U.S. officials' response to Zardari's election was positive but low-key.

"President Bush looks forward to working with him, Prime Minister [Yusaf Raza] Gillani and the government of Pakistan on issues important to both countries, including counter-terrorism and making sure Pakistan has a stable and secure economy," Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement.

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