Benazir Bhutto's political party names candidate for Pakistani prime minister

Sunday, March 23, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto named former parliament speaker Yousaf Raza Gilani as its candidate for Pakistan's next prime minister Saturday.

Bhutto's Pakistan's People's Party won the biggest parliamentary bloc in Feb. 18 elections and is preparing to lead a new coalition government united against U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf, whose supporters were routed in the polls. The party enjoys the customary right to name the prime minister because it won the most seats.

Gilani was a close aide to Bhutto and spent four years in jail on allegations he abused his authority as speaker under Bhutto's second term as prime minister in the 1990s. He was freed in 2005. Party spokesman Farhatullah Babar announced his nomination at a news conference Saturday night in Islamabad.

"Yousaf Raza Gilani is not afraid to lead and he knows the way," Babar said, reading a statement from Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari.

The PPP is forming a majority coalition with the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which came in second in the elections. Neither party took enough votes to govern alone.

The naming of a premiership candidate was stalled for weeks, fueling speculation that Zardari wanted the job for himself. He now shares control of the party with his and Bhutto's 19-year-old son.

Zardari, however, cannot become premier because he did not run for a parliamentary seat. But he could contest a by-election and win a seat to qualify as early as this summer. In that case, Gilani would be a stand-in until Zardari could run.

A confirmation vote is scheduled for Monday in parliament, and the prime minister would be sworn in by Musharraf a day later.

Gilani will likely face an opposition candidate from Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League-Q. However, that nomination is largely symbolic because Musharraf and his allies lack a majority in parliament.

The choice of Gilani came as a clear snub to PPP vice chair Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who was long presumed the front-runner after leading Bhutto's party during her nearly eight years in exile.

Still, Fahim said he would not quit the party.

"I have the best wishes for him," Fahim told The Associated Press just after Gilani's name was announced.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan last year only to be assassinated in a suicide attack in December. Since then, Zardari has risen to become a key figure in Pakistan's politics, and he may have considered Fahim a threat to his own political ambitions.

Bhutto's son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, was appointed party chairman after his mother died, but his father is running things while the 19-year-old continues his studies at Oxford University.

Zardari and Sharif, who was ousted in Musharraf's 1999 coup, have pledged that their coalition will tackle the massive challenges facing Pakistan, including a wave of Islamic militancy, high inflation and electricity shortages.

They have also vowed to work to strengthen democracy.

A confrontation still looms between Musharraf and Sharif, who has been one of the most vocal in calling for the unpopular president's resignation or impeachment.

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