Bhutto's party meets to nominate next prime minister of Pakistan

With leadership still in limbo, parliament plans to convene later this month.

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    Pakistani police officers stand in front of a poster of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Ms. Bhutto's party, the Pakistan People's Party, failed to agree on a candidate for prime minister on Thursday, largely due to discord over Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a stalwart Bhutto aide.
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After winning landmark parliamentary elections on Feb. 18, Pakistan People's Party met to select its nomination for the next prime minister. The PPP has vowed to form a coalition government with other opposition parties, shutting out loyalists of President Pervez Musharraf, who could face impeachment by a hostile parliament that is due to convene later this month.

On Thursday, the party failed to agree on a candidate, largely due to discord over front-runner candidate Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a stalwart Bhutto aide, reports the Agence France-Presse. He is one of four candidates whom the party is expected to nominate, reports the Associated Press.

The Bush administration is anxious to ensure that the tensions between pro-US Musharraf and his opponents don't blunt Pakistan's resolve to combat militant violence, particularly in its tribal belt along the troubled border with Afghanistan. After a lull, Pakistan has been roiled by a recent upsurge in suicide attacks. A power blackout in Karachi has also drawn attention to economic challenges facing the next government.

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In a possible sign of easing political tensions, on Wednesday an anticorruption court threw out five charges against PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The charges dated from Ms. Bhutto's two terms in office, when Mr. Zardari was accused of massive graft and later jailed on what he called politically motivated charges, reports the Associated Press.

Property seized from Mr. Zardari will be immediately returned to him, while the court is expected next week to quash two other outstanding corruption cases against him. His lawyer, Farooq Naek, praised the Supreme Court for upholding a controversial ordinance issued last year by Musharraf that gave an amnesty to politicians and bureaucrats in corruption cases prior to 1999, when Musharraf staged a coup. The ordinance was widely seen at the time as a conciliatory offering by Musharraf to Bhutto as she prepared to return from exile.

 
Asked whether the end of the corruption cases made it easier for the party to work with Musharraf, Naek said: "We do not believe in politics of revenge, and we believe that there should be coexistence between democratic forces."

While Zardari is not currently a candidate for prime minister, several other senior party officials are vying for the job, and a decision may be reached Thursday, reports Agence France-Presse. Mr. Fahim, the front-runner, has struck a conciliatory tone towards Musharraf, telling CNN last month that there were no immediate plans to oust the embattled former Army chief.

 
Another contender is Ahmed Mukhtar, an industrialist who is close to Zardari and who defeated the chief of the pro-Musharraf party in the elections, party officials said.
 
Also in the running are Yousaf Raza Gilani, who served as parliamentary speaker for a time under Bhutto, and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, head of the PPP's Punjab branch, they said.

Pakistan's daily newspaper Dawn says that Mr. Fahim is a veteran lawmaker from the PPP's power base in Sindh Province, where Ms. Bhutto's family lives. Political commentators have argued, however, that the party may nominate a candidate from the populous Punjab region to bolster its standing in the province. In last month's election, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) party led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif headed the field in Punjab. Mr. Sharif has agreed to join a PPP-led coalition, but the rivalry between the two parties is unlikely to end.

In India, The Hindu reports that the selection of a candidate from Punjab may be a tactic to pave the way for Zardari to eventually take over as prime minister. It says speculation in Islamabad suggests a "stop-gap arrangement" that would nominate a Punjabi, rather than Mr. Fahim, who is popular in the party and would be harder for Zardari to forceout. It also reports that the PPP is still working out the details of its coalition with Sharif's party, which is said to be reluctant to participate fully.

The battle over Musharraf and his rule is still driving Pakistani politics, reports The New York Times. Lawyers who spearheaded opposition to him last year are regrouping and calling for the reversal of Musharraf's purge of the judiciary, including the reinstatement of a former chief judge who remains under house arrest. Nor have the calls for impeaching Musharraf once parliament reconvenes gone away, adding to his difficulties.

 
Mr. Musharraf, much weakened since removing his uniform and since his political party sustained a resounding defeat at the polls, nevertheless retains one powerful weapon. Under controversial constitutional amendments, he has the power to dissolve Parliament and dismiss the government. He also has the right to appoint and remove the top officials of the armed forces.

The jockeying comes as militants step up a suicide-bombing campaign, amid a possible military cease-fire with key militant leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas. The Christian Science Monitor reported this week that four bombs in five days have unnerved Pakistanis after relative calm during and after the elections. The targets have included members of the security forces and tribal elders at a public meeting.

 
What is clear is that the attacks are turning more Pakistanis against militants, whose actions were sometimes cast as freedom fighters against the United States in Afghanistan.
 
"It is leading to enormous public revulsion and a backlash against militants," says [Ahmed] Rashid, the Taliban expert, who lives in Lahore.
 
On the streets of Lahore, however, Pakistanis are drawing their own conclusions from the bombings. Not surprisingly, it is the same message they tried to send in the election: Mr. Musharraf is the problem, and he needs to go to save the country.

The Los Angeles Times says that Musharraf has struggled to contain Islamic extremists in the tribal belt and halt the rising tide of violence spreading across the country, including Islamabad. Neither attempted peace deals nor military offensives have managed to stop the insurgency from spreading, to the dismay of US policymakers.

 
Most Pakistanis abhor the violence gripping their nation, but many are critical of the harsh military crackdown on the tribal areas, which they see as Musharraf doing the bidding of U.S. officials.

Wednesday's court ruling allowed Zardari to clear his name over domestic corruption cases. But other international cases still hang over his head, including a Swiss probe into money laundering. The BBC reported last year that in 2003 a Geneva court convicted Bhutto and Zardari of laundering over $15 million in kickbacks from Swiss companies who had received government contracts in Pakistan.

The court in Geneva sentenced the two defendants in absentia to 180 days in prison and ordered the return of $12 million to Pakistan's government. The defendents contested the ruling, though. Even if Pakistan stops cooperating with the court to chase the missing the money, the Swiss case would not automatically end, the BBC reported.

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