Bhutto's party selects new head

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto picked a respected but lesser-known party leader yesterday as its candidate for prime minister, a move that analysts and some party insiders said could pave the way for Bhutto's widower to seek the job in a few months.

Yousuf Raza Gillani, a former assembly speaker who spent more than four years in jail under President Pervez Musharraf, eclipsed Bhutto's deputy, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who had been seen as the front-runner.

Parliament is to vote on Gillani's confirmation tomorrow, with a swearing-in set the following day. The coalition led by Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party easily has the votes to push the nomination through.

Analysts said the choice of a lower-key party figure such as Gillani could prefigure a bid by Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, to become prime minister at a later date. In order to qualify, Zardari first would have to win a parliamentary by-election for a vacant assembly seat.

Zardari took over as party leader following Bhutto's assassination in December and serves as a sort of regent to their 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who was named co-leader.

Fahim, Bhutto's deputy, had lost some favor because of a perceived willingness to make some accommodation with Musharraf. Before Bhutto's death, her party had weighed an alliance with the general, but the new coalition led by the PPP wants to curtail his powers drastically.

Musharraf's popularity has plummeted during the past year, hitting rock-bottom when he declared emergency rule - akin to martial law - for six weeks late last year. His party was subsequently trounced in last month's elections.

Gillani's anti-Musharraf credentials were burnished by his prison stay, during which he refused to make any deal with the Musharraf administration in order to win his freedom.

Unlike his erstwhile rival Fahim, Gillani is seen as a loyalist who would readily relinquish the prime minister's job if asked to do so. "Having Fahim step aside would not have been so simple because of his stature, but with Gillani, such a scenario cannot be ruled out," political analyst Nasim Zehra said.

Some senior party figures insisted that Gillani was not appointed with merely a stopgap tenure in mind. Husain Haqqani, a Boston University professor who serves as a senior adviser to the party, said he believed Zardari wanted to keep the party leadership separate from the job of prime minister. But that, he acknowledged, could change in the coming months.

Despite being vastly outnumbered in Parliament, Musharraf's party plans to field a candidate in tomorrow's vote.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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