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Archive for Sunday, September 7, 2008

Bhutto’s widower wins election

Pakistani President-elect Asif Ali Zardari, center, head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party and widower of two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, attends a celebration dinner Saturday at the Prime Minister residence in Islamabad, Pakistan. The widower of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto became Pakistan's new president Saturday after winning a landslide election victory that makes him a critical partner of the West against international terrorism.

Pakistani President-elect Asif Ali Zardari, center, head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party and widower of two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, attends a celebration dinner Saturday at the Prime Minister residence in Islamabad, Pakistan. The widower of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto became Pakistan's new president Saturday after winning a landslide election victory that makes him a critical partner of the West against international terrorism.

September 7, 2008

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— The election of the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to the presidency marked an emotional moment Saturday for the slain leader's supporters, but many Pakistanis wondered whether Asif Ali Zardari successfully could tackle the country's problems.

Chants of "Bhutto lives!" rang out in parliamentary chambers as regional and national lawmakers cast ballots overwhelmingly electing Zardari to replace President Pervez Musharraf, the longtime U.S. ally who stepped down in August rather than face impeachment charges.

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

The new president, likely to be sworn in Tuesday, will face a fast-deteriorating economy, a determined Islamic insurgency and an often-uneasy relationship with Washington, D.C.

Violence continues

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 her friends, had said while she was alive that he had no interest in politics. The former prime minister's contemporaries did not regard Zardari, the polo-playing scion of a wealthy landowning clan and a political novice, as her intellectual equal, and the two lived apart for the last years of her life.

But he became the leader of the Pakistan People's Party when she was assassinated in December 2007, and 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.

After the elections, the PPP at first aligned with the second-biggest opposition vote-getter, the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But that partnership collapsed in August amid acrimony over restoring the 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. 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 in office, the two parties feared he might use his authority to dissolve Parliament and the government.

Zardari's background

His public image is complicated. His wife's assassination brought sympathy for him and the couple's three teenage children.

But many people remain mistrustful of him over corruption charges dating to the 1990s; the derisive nickname given him by political opponents has never gone away: "Mr. 10 Percent," 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.

Zardari, like Bhutto, is seen as friendly to the West, a stance that is politically difficult for any Pakistani leader amid a growing furor over U.S. strikes at militants taking shelter in Pakistan's tribal areas. A ground raid Wednesday killed as many as 20 people.

Pakistan denounces such incursions as a violation of its sovereignty, but many people believe Zardari tacitly has given the Bush administration the go-ahead for unilateral military actions.

In what might 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 the tribal areas and into Afghanistan.

Mindful of the sensitivities, U.S. officials were positive but low-key about Zardari's election.

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

Saturday's vote by lawmakers generated little excitement inside Pakistan, which has been buffeted by more than 18 months of turmoil that saw Bhutto's assassination and Musharraf's fall from power.

With no popular vote, there was no campaign. In the days leading up to the vote, people asked about the balloting said they were more concerned about soaring food prices and electricity cuts.

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