/ 24 March 2008

Pakistan Parliament votes for new leader

Pakistan’s Parliament prepared on Monday to elect a new prime minister as the coalition government appeared set for a confrontation with key United States ally President Pervez Musharraf.

Yousuf Raza Gilani, the candidate nominated by the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, is a virtual certainty to win because the party and its allies have a huge majority in the National Assembly.

Former parliamentary speaker Gilani was named by Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) on Saturday, more than one month after general elections in which backers of the embattled Musharraf lost heavily.

”The party’s nominee for office of the prime minister is poised to win election in the National Assembly with more than two-thirds majority and with broad consensus,” party spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said.

”This is a great day for democracy and political reconciliation in the country,” he added.

Gilani’s only opponent is a candidate from the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party — former Punjab province chief minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, a staunch backer of Musharraf.

Musharraf last week specially convened Monday’s parliamentary session for the election of the premier and is set to swear in the new prime minister on Tuesday.

The PPP and its junior coalition partner, the party of former premier Nawaz Sharif, are set for a showdown with Musharraf after vowing to restore sacked judges who could challenge the president’s grip on power.

Speculation remains that Gilani would be a stop-gap premier until Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari — who is not an MP — becomes eligible to stand for the post by contesting a by-election in May.

But a newspaper report said that Zardari had denied this, saying that he was not interested in the job.

”Gilani will be the prime minister for five years and not for three months,” local daily the News quoted Zardari as saying.

Gilani was speaker during Bhutto’s second term in power from 1993 to 1996 and a minister during her first term from 1988 to 1990.

He spent five years in jail under Musharraf’s regime on corruption charges that he said were politically motivated. His spell in prison won him respect within the PPP’s ranks.

Musharraf on Sunday pledged his full support to the new coalition, hailing the start of what he called a ”real democratic era” in the country, plagued for months by violence linked to al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.

”Whichever new government is formed, it will have my full support,” Musharraf said at a military parade marking Pakistan’s national day. — Sapa-AFP