Bhutto Widower Proposed For Pakistan Prez

In this handout photo released by Pakistan People's Party, ruling party leader Asif Ali Zardari, left, speaks during the party's central executive meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan on Friday, Aug. 22, 2008. Pakistan's ruling parties reverted Friday to a power struggle that has hamstrung their government, a day after a massive suicide attack demonstrated the need for strong leadership. The man at right is the party's secretary general Jahagir Badar. (AP Photo/Pakistan People's Party, HO) ** NO SALES **
AP Photo
Pakistan's largest political party proposed the husband of assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto to succeed the ousted Pervez Musharraf as president.

Asif Ali Zardari, who is emerging as the favorite to be elected by legislators Sept. 6, criticized Musharraf for his long, authoritarian rule but would likely continue the former general's support for the U.S. war against extremist groups.

However, his ascent would dismay many Pakistanis, who view him as a symbol of the sleaze that tainted the country's last experiment with civilian rule in the 1990s. He won the nickname "Mr. 10 Percent" for alleged corruption during his wife's turns as prime minister.

And, with the governing coalition that drove Musharraf to resign this week now teetering on the verge of collapse, Zardari's nomination is not certain. He is engaged in intense political horse-trading with the leader of the other key party, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was a bitter rival of Bhutto.

Sharif had no immediate reaction to Zardari's nomination, but his party has been threatening to bolt from the coalition in a struggle over power.

Many citizens, as well as Pakistan's Western backers, are urging the parties to resolve political issues and turn their attention to runaway inflation, slowing economic growth and inexorably rising violence by Islamic militants entrenched along the border with Afghanistan.

That need was rammed home Thursday by twin Taliban suicide bombings that killed 67 people at the country's biggest weapons manufacturing complex, just 22 miles from the capital, Islamabad. On Friday, security forces killed 16 militants, including two suspected suicide bombers, in a clash in the restive frontier in the northwest, officials said.

After seeking to tame militant groups in peace negotiations, the government has been entangled in recent weeks in increasing fighting with hard-line Islamic movements along the border. Militant violence began intensifying after Musharraf ordered soldiers to seize a radical mosque in Islamabad during a bloody battle in July 2007.

According to Associated Press reporting, at least 110 militant attacks have been launched on government, military or police targets since the mosque siege and about 20 attacks have targeted civilians. At least 60 of all those attacks were suicide bombings

The total violence since July 2007, which includes some fighting not initiated by militants, has resulted in the deaths of at least 350 soldiers, 120 police, 470 civilians and 1,000 militants, based on AP reporting.

The 52-year-old Zardari did not immediately accept his party's nomination, but he had done nothing to tamp down the recent chorus from supporters calling for him to take a post that retains many of the powers accumulated during Musharraf's nine-year rule.

"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 of Zardari's Pakistan People's Party, which gave the leader unanimous support at a meeting Friday.

Party spokeswoman Sherry Rehman said Zardari promised to announce whether to accept the nomination within 24 hours.

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

A presidency for Zardari - or a figure under his control - would cap an extraordinary transformation of Pakistani politics that has removed both of Washington's most likely allies from the scene.

Zardari only returned to Pakistan from years in exile after his wife was assassinated in a gun-and-bomb attack last December.

Bhutto, a liberal who courted Western governments and pledged a tough line against Islamic militants, had come back two months before under a U.S.-encouraged deal with Musharraf expected to see them share power after February parliamentary elections.

Musharraf, who gave up his dual post of army chief in November to rule as a civilian president, had by then issued a controversial order quashing corruption charges against Bhutto and her husband.

But Musharraf became a political untouchable even for Bhutto after he imposed emergency rule so he could remove Supreme Court judges poised to block his plan to remain as a civilian ruler.

The turmoil resulted in a stinging defeat for Musharraf's allies in the February elections and thrust Zardari into an alliance with Sharif united mainly by opposition to the unpopular ex-general.

Once Musharraf resigned Monday to head off impeachment, the two biggest parties in the government have wrangled over how to restore the fired judges, whether Musharraf should face prosecution and who should succeed him.

The election commission announced Friday that federal and provincial lawmakers would elect the new president in simultaneous votes Sept. 6. It said candidates must file nomination papers Tuesday.

Lieutenants of Sharif have argued that the next president should hail from one of Pakistan's two smallest provinces - Baluchistan or North West Frontier. That would exclude Zardari, who comes from the southern province of Sindh.

Zardari previously suggested a woman should get the job - prompting speculation that parliamentary speaker Fehmida Mirza, who bears an eerie resemblance to his late wife - or even his sister, a minor politician, could step up.

But some observers view a candidacy by the man who already wields great power from behind the scenes as logical.

A national newspaper predicted Friday that Zardari will take the presidency so that no one else can secure its power to appoint the chiefs of the military or to dissolve parliament. Polls suggest that Sharif, who tapped popular rejection of Musharraf and his close alliance with the U.S., would make significant gains in the event of new elections.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said Zardari would be unlikely to weaken Pakistan's close alliance with Washington.

"The logic will be that a powerful individual with national support, which Zardari might get, will be more effective to deal with the question of terrorism," Rais said.

The governing coalition continued to show strains, with a spokesman for Sharif's party threatening again late Friday to leave the alliance.

If the party did quit, the lawyers who mounted months of street protests against Musharraf over the ouster of judges would likely take to the streets again.