Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, may have consolidated his political position with the election of his candidate as president last week. But the choice of Rafiq Tarar has also opened a controversy over the growing role of Islamic fundamentalists in the government.
Mr. Tarar, a retired supreme court judge, replaces Farooq Leghari in a post that holds more symbolic value than actual political power. He was elected by the members of Pakistan's national parliament and four provincial parliaments, not in a popular vote.
Critics accused Tarar of opposing women's rights and discriminating against the Ahmediya sect. The sect recognizes another Islamic prophet who followed Muhammad, but considers itself Muslim. Under Pakistani law, however, members of the sect are classified as non-Muslims.
Prime Minister Sharif's decision to back Tarar also has been criticized by his opponents as an attempt to concentrate power within his home province of Punjab, while ignoring the country's three other ethnically diverse provinces.
After taking the oath as president, Tarar defended his record, saying he was a "liberal Muslim" and denying that he was a fundamentalist. Sharif said he was "confident that [Tarar] will take the country toward stability and progress."
Sharif's supporters say that the election of President Tarar puts the prime minister in a stronger position. Politicians in Sharif's ruling party had criticized former President Leghari for supporting a former chief justice of the supreme court, Sajjad Ali Shah, and others in their fight against Sharif.
"Tarar's views on law, polity, and women are indistinguishable from fundamentalism," says Maleeha Lodhi, editor of The News, an English-language newspaper. "There are widespread misgivings ... that he could become a cheerleader for conservative and fundamentalist forces."
Some critics recall the appointment of former Lt. Gen. Javaid Nasir as the head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's elite intelligence agency, by Sharif during his last tenure as prime minister (1990-93).
Like Tarar, General Nasir was known to be a supporter of the Tableeghi jamaat, a group committed to promoting Islam worldwide that advocates the wearing of the veil for women, segregation of the sexes, and a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Before the election, Tarar's nomination for president was blocked by Pakistan's election commission on the grounds he committed contempt when he criticized the judiciary in remarks to newspapers. Tarar was successful in getting that verdict overturned in a petition before Punjab province's high court.
He was allowed to run in the election while a trial continues. The next hearing is Jan. 12. Under Pakistani law, officials found guilty of contempt of court can be disqualified from holding office.
Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and opposition leader, said just before the election, "We will have a president who is [under legal action]. Even if the high court rules in favor of Tarar, there will be a supreme court petition by us" that will challenge the verdict.