ISLAMABAD // Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, won a sweeping victory yesterday to become Pakistan's president. Mr Zardari's election win transformed the former polo-playing playboy tainted by allegations of corruption into a powerful statesman responsible for a nuclear-armed country that faces serious security and economic crises.
His assumption of office will complete the transition to civilian rule after a hiatus of eight years following the resignation of the former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, last month. The pro-Taliban militant threat to the country's stability was underscored yesterday when 20 people were killed and about 80 wounded in a suicide car bomb blast that targeted a security checkpost on the outskirts of Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan.
It followed a possible assassination attempt on the prime minister last week. Mr Zardari has said he expects his wife's assassins, who he once said came from the Pakistani establishment, will try to assassinate him. The country, which has a long history of large-scale administrative corruption, is likely to be bolstered by massive amounts of foreign currency loans and aid. "This president will be subservient to parliament. Democracy talks and everybody hears," Mr Zardari said in a short television broadcast last night. "Listen to democracy."
"It's not only a victory for Mr Zardari and the Pakistan People's Party, but it's a victory for Benazir Bhutto's dream of a democratic political system," said Farzana Raja, a spokesman for the PPP. Mr Zardari's election as president also restored the Bhutto dynasty to power in Pakistan for the first time since 1996 when Bhutto's own appointed president, Farooq Leghari, dismissed her government. As the result was announced in the national assembly, Mr Zardari and Bhutto's two daughters, Asifa and Bakhtawar, joined in rowdy shouts of "Gia Bhutto" - "Long live Bhutto" - as they held a photograph of their mother.
Their elder brother, Bilawal, 19, who is a student at Oxford and is co-leader of the party, was reported to be in Dubai. A limited electoral college made up of members of Pakistan's national assembly, senate and four provincial assemblies elected Mr Zardari. He will be sworn into office today. Mr Zardari secured 281 out of 426 parliamentary votes and won a vast majority in three of the four provincial assemblies. The PPP leader managed to win a large majority of votes from an array of regional, religious and ethnic parties reflecting his deftness in building a broad coalition, leading him to assert that he was a "consensus candidate". After Bhutto's assassination in December, the PPP won parliamentary elections in February. Mr Zardari became one of the most powerful figures in the country after he assumed leadership of the party. He appointed a pliant PPP leader, Yousaf Raza Gilani, as prime minister, but he has remained the de facto leader. Mr Zardari reconstituted his coalition when Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and head of the PPP's coalition partner, ended a brief, benighted period of "national reconciliation" by withdrawing from the government last month after the government had succeeded in forcing Mr Musharraf to resign. Mr Sharif said the PPP leader had failed to honour his pledges that he would reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry, the former chief justice, who was sacked by Mr Musharraf. Mr Zardari, who was formerly a member of parliament and served twice as a minister during his wife's two stints in power, lacks popular support. A poll by Gallup Pakistan found only 26 per cent of about 2,000 people questioned thought Mr Zardari should be president, while 44 per cent did not want any of the three candidates. His two rival candidates for president were Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, a former judge nominated by the PML-N, Mr Sharif's party, and Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a senior official of the party that backed Mr Musharraf. Pakistanis hope that the election of Mr Zardari will end a period of government stagnation caused by bickering with his former coalition ally. Mr Zardari's rise to the Pakistan's political heights has caused some consternation from analysts, who are concerned that the wheeler-dealer, who has mastered his country's street-fighting internal politics, may be a divisive figure. "We accept the results, and we hope Zardari will resign from his party position immediately," said Khwaja Saad Rafiq, a leader of Mr Sharif's party, reflecting concerns that if Mr Zardari did not step down as party co-chairman, he risks politicising a post considered to be a "symbol of Pakistan's federation". However, on the eve of his probable assumption of office, Mr Zardari issued a statement that sought to allay concerns that he would be a dictatorial president by pledging that his first action in office would be to restore the balance of power between the presidency and parliament. The president has the power to dissolve parliament and appoint army chiefs, and chairs the joint civilian-military committee that controls Pakistan's nuclear weapons. The PPP government has the backing of Washington and senior party leaders have outdone Mr Musharraf in taking a tough line against terrorism by insisting the battle against militants is Pakistan's own war. Mr Zardari could, however, find it difficult to publicly offer unconditional support for the United States' military actions in Pakistan. Washington has embarked on an increasingly aggressive campaign of firing missiles and, for the first time, last week launched a commando raid on Pakistani soil. Pakistan blocked a major fuel supply route for western forces in Afghanistan in response to the raid, Ahmed Mukhtar, the defence minister, claimed yesterday. However, an official said the fuel was being stopped temporarily because of worries about security on the Pakistani side. Militants have been attacking lorries in the Khyber Pass on the way to Torkham. Another key test for Mr Zardari will be to develop a relationship with Pakistan's powerful military and bureaucracy. He has already sought better relations with India, the army's traditional foe, and has opposed militants the army has supported in Afghanistan and Kashmir. An attempt by Mr Zardari - through Mr Gilani, the prime minister - in July to curb the powers of the army's Inter Services Intelligence by placing it under the interior minister, failed after a matter of hours. However, the BBC reported that Mr Zardari's aides said he had a "grand master plan", which was developed by Bhutto, that involves striking a deal with the army. The PPP will ensure a steady supply of military aid and equipment from Washington to sustain the army in its failing bid to win military parity with its giant neighbour, India. In return, the army will go all out to defeat the militants in Pakistan's tribal areas and keep out of national politics, according to the report. But much will depend on Mr Zardari's ability to stabilise the economy and keep at bay Mr Sharif, who controls the pivotal Punjab province, which Mr Zardari failed to win yesterday. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org