- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Lawmakers wearing lapel pins with pictures of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto vowed a new dawn for democracy yesterday as Pakistan’s parliament convened for the first time since opponents of the president swept to victory in last month’s elections.

Legislative leaders promised to challenge U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf by slashing his powers and reviewing his counterterrorism policies.

However, the president’s foes face other challenges, including high inflation and other economic troubles, increased Islamic militancy and the ticklish question of who should be prime minister.

Jubilant legislators took their seats in the National Assembly as an imam’s Koran recitation echoed through the hall. Female politicians — 74 of them — tightened their Muslim head scarves.

“No assembly has ever been given such a clear mandate,” said Javed Hashmi, a party lieutenant of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by Mr. Musharraf in a 1999 military coup and sent into exile until November.

In a televised ceremony, more than 300 lawmakers stood and simultaneously repeated the oath of office. Some were exultant, some solemn. Others pounded their desks with fists to laud colleagues marching up to sign the parliamentary roll.

Even Sen. Tariq Azim, a Musharraf loyalist, hailed the inauguration of parliament’s lower house as a “step toward political stability.”

Mr. Musharraf stayed away from the session, where Mr. Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, the widower and political successor of Mrs. Bhutto, savored the moment from the gallery for dignitaries since neither holds a legislative seat.

This nuclear-armed nation of 160 million people has been under military rule for most of its 60-year history, including the past eight years. Mr. Musharraf, a military general until late last year, seized power in 1999 after Pakistan endured a series of civilian governments that were accused of corruption and incompetence.

Mr. Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party won the most seats in the Feb. 18 election, which delivered a resounding defeat to supporters of Mr. Musharraf. Mr. Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, finished second, and the two men agreed to form a broad governing coalition.

They intend to include a small secular party that triumphed in Pakistan’s northwest, the restive region on the Afghan border that is a stronghold of militants linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda. Many Pakistanis blame rising violence on Mr. Musharraf’s close alliance with the U.S.

Parliament won’t get down to the business of lawmaking until the new Cabinet takes office later this month.

The PPP has said its top priority is to seek a U.N. investigation of the Dec. 27 assassination of Mrs. Bhutto, the highest-profile victim in a string of suicide bomb attacks that has stoked concern about the stability of this Islamic nation.

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