Bhutto's Widower Elected Pakistani President

A suicide car bomber killed at least 12 people in a devastating attack in northwestern Pakistan on Saturday, just as lawmakers around the country were electing a successor to ex-President Pervez Musharraf. Video by AP
By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 7, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 6 -- Pakistan's lawmakers on Saturday elected Asif Ali Zardari, widower of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, to take over the country's presidency amid political and economic turmoil and fears of a strengthening Taliban insurgency.

His victory, almost three weeks after Pervez Musharraf resigned as president under the threat of impeachment, marked a rare peaceful succession of power in the country's 61-year history. Zardari won a clear majority of votes in Parliament and the four provincial assemblies, and his two main competitors conceded the race minutes after the results were announced.

Addressing members of his Pakistan People's Party in Islamabad, the capital, Zardari, 53, said: "To those who would say the People's Party, or the presidency, would be controversial under our guardianship, under our stewardship, I would say, 'Listen to democracy.' "

Zardari, a critic of Musharraf's nearly nine-year rule, has vowed to work with the United States to eliminate the threat of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters inside Pakistan as the insurgency escalates in neighboring Afghanistan.

In a reminder of the security challenges the president faces, a suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint near the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing 35 people and injuring scores. The Pakistani Taliban asserted responsibility.

Last week, U.S. forces staged the first known American ground attack against a Taliban target inside Pakistan. On Saturday, in response to the assault, Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar vowed to indefinitely block a major fuel supply route for Western forces in Afghanistan. The government initially also cited security concerns for the decision, then rescinded the blockade. But the tension underscored the widening domestic divide that Zardari must manage over the country's alliance with the United States.

The United States congratulated Zardari. "President Bush looks forward to working with him, Prime Minister [Yousaf Raza] Gilani, and the government of Pakistan on issues important to both countries, including counterterrorism and making sure Pakistan has a stable and secure economy," Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement.

Pakistan's constitution gives the president sweeping powers over the nuclear-armed nation's security apparatus. It is unclear whether Zardari will be able to rein in the country's powerful intelligence agencies and root out military and intelligence officers who maintain ties to the Taliban and to al-Qaeda.

Zardari has faced serious challenges since becoming head of the Pakistan People's Party after his wife was killed Dec. 27. In February, he led the party to its best showing in parliamentary elections, but the party lacked a majority.

Zardari then formed a coalition government with a onetime political rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Their parties worked successfully to push Musharraf out of office, but their alliance fell apart soon after amid differences over the restoration of dozens of judges fired by Musharraf last year.

Several of the judges have been reinstated since Musharraf's resignation, including three to the Supreme Court on Friday. But the fate of deposed Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, a hugely popular figure, remains unclear. Zardari has said he will restore the judiciary but in recent days has avoided any mention of Chaudhry.

Zardari has been more vocal, however, on the issue of presidential power, saying he will eliminate amendments that allow the president to dissolve Parliament. That would presumably transform the presidency into a figurehead position. But analysts say his role will undoubtedly overshadow that of the prime minister because he apparently intends to remain leader of the ruling party.

Zardari is known to many people here as "Mr. 10 Percent" because of allegations that he took millions of dollars in kickbacks during his wife's two terms as prime minister. He spent 11 years in prison on corruption charges but was not convicted.

The government dropped the case as part of an amnesty deal last year between Bhutto and Musharraf.

Zardari's victory surprised few Pakistanis, who expressed little interest in the election. In Islamabad's commercial center, several people said they doubt that the new president will make much difference.

At a hotel hair salon, Zahid Mushtaq, a barber, clucked as images of Zardari flashed on a small television. "I don't think anyone can do good for Pakistan," Mushtaq said.

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company