/ 6 September 2008

Zardari wins Pakistan election

Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, swept to victory in a presidential election on Saturday, as a suicide bomber killed at least 10 people in the north-west.

Investors hope the election will bring some stability after months of political turmoil that has helped drag stocks and the rupee sharply lower.

Members of the two-chamber Parliament and four provincial assemblies voted on a replacement for deeply unpopular Pervez Musharraf, who resigned last month.

Zardari, who had been widely expected to win, had secured 458 out of 702 electoral college votes, according to unofficial and partial Election Commission results.

”It’s not only a victory for Mr Zardari and the Pakistan People’s Party but it’s [also] a victory for … Benazir Bhutto’s dream of a democratic political system,” said Bhutto party spokesperson Farzana Raja as party workers chanted ”Long live Bhutto”.

Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack on December 27 weeks after returning from years in exile. Her party now holds the Presidency and leads the government.

Zardari, known as a polo-playing playboy in his younger days, will have to contend with a host of problems that have raised fears for the prospects of the nuclear-armed United States ally, including militant violence and an economy in tatters.

Underscoring the danger, a suicide car-bomber attacked a police post in the city of Peshawar on Saturday, killing at least 10 people, five of them police officers, and wounding about 40.

The blast destroyed the post and brought down roofs of nearby buildings. Some people were still buried under the rubble, said provincial police chief Malik Naveed Khan.

The bomber’s target was probably the provincial assembly, where members were voting in the election, he said.

”The car was signalled to stop but the driver went into the post and set off his explosives,” Khan said.

Close to US
Zardari (53) was thrust into the centre of politics by his wife’s assassination. A February parliamentary election win for their Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) made him one of the most powerful figures in the country.

His decision in August to begin impeachment proceedings against Musharraf led to the latter’s resignation, and cleared the way for Zardari to win the top job.

His two rivals for president were Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, a former judge, nominated by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party; and Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a senior official of the party that backed Musharraf and ruled under him.

A former businessman, Zardari is close to the US and has repeatedly stressed Pakistan’s commitment to the widely unpopular campaign against militancy.

But he will take office as anger with the US is boiling after a bloody incursion by US ground troops into a remote village on the Afghan border on Wednesday.

In response to the raid, authorities blocked a major fuel supply route for Western forces in Afghanistan on Saturday.

”We have told them that we will take action and we have already taken action today. We have stopped the supply of oil and this will tell how serious we are,” Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar told Dawn Television.

Most fuel and other supplies for US forces in Afghanistan are trucked through Pakistan, crossing the border at two points, Torkham, near Peshawar, and Chaman to the south-west.

The Chaman crossing, where supplies cross in to the Afghan south, was operating normally.

Zardari spent 11 years in jail on corruption and other charges stemming from his time in government when his wife was prime minister in the 1990s. He was never convicted and said the charges were politically motivated.

But in an indication of the doubts Zardari faces, a poll by Gallup Pakistan found only 26% of about 2 000 people questioned thought he should be president, while 44% didn’t want any of the three candidates.

Political uncertainty, exacerbated by a split in the PPP-led coalition last month, together with security and economic worries have sapped investor confidence and dragged Pakistani stocks down 34% this year.

The main index rose by 1% on Friday, helped by optimism the vote will bring clarity. The rupee has lost 20% to the dollar this year but firmed to 76,40/50.

Dwindling foreign reserves, a widening current-account deficit and a sliding rupee could result in a ratings downgrade as doubts mount over Pakistan’s ability to meet external debt obligations.

But it will probably avoid sovereign debt default as its stability is such an important geopolitical factor that institutions will eventually help it meet its obligations, analysts say. — Reuters