- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

From combined dispatches

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The party of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto yesterday named a low-profile former parliament speaker as its candidate for Pakistan’s next prime minister.

The nomination of Yousaf Raza Gilani fueled speculation he may be a stop-gap leader until Mrs. Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, qualifies to become prime minister.

Mr. Zardari, who leads Mrs. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), is ineligible to stand for prime minister because he is not a member of parliament.

President Pervez Musharraf has asked the National Assembly to reconvene tomorrow to elect the prime minister, who would be sworn in the following day.

Mr. Gilani, a vice chairman of the PPP, is all but guaranteed to win the vote with the support of his party, which won the most seats in a Feb. 18 parliamentary election, and its coalition allies.

Mr. Gilani, from the central province of Punjab, was a close aide to Mrs. Bhutto and spent four years in jail on allegations he abused his authority as parliament speaker under Mrs. Bhutto’s second term as prime minister in the 1990s. He was freed in 2005.

The PPP is forming a majority coalition with the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which came in second in the elections. Neither party took enough votes to govern alone.

The naming of a prime ministerial candidate was stalled for weeks, fueling speculation that Mr. Zardari wanted the job for himself. He now shares control of the party with his and Mrs. Bhutto’s 19-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

Mr. Zardari could contest a by-election and win a seat in parliament to qualify to run for prime minister as early as this summer. In that case, Mr. Gilani would be a stand-in until Mr. Zardari could run.

Analysts said the appointment of Mr. Gilani, a low-key Bhutto loyalist, was likely to add to speculation Mr. Zardari would seek to become prime minister.

“It’s not a nomination you’d expect for a five-year term,” political analyst Masooda Bano told Reuters news agency. “He’s proved his loyalty, but even in the public mind he doesn’t have that strong a presence.”

Mr. Gilani will face an opposition candidate from Mr. Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, who will be named today. However, that nomination is largely symbolic because Mr. Musharraf and his allies lack a majority in parliament.

The choice of Mr. Gilani came as a clear snub to PPP vice chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who was long presumed the front-runner after leading Mrs. Bhutto’s party during her nearly eight years in exile.

Still, Mr. Fahim said he would not quit the party.

“I have the best wishes for him,” Mr. Fahim told the Associated Press just after Mr. Gilani’s name was announced.

Mrs. Bhutto returned to Pakistan last year only to be assassinated in a suicide attack in December. Since then, Mr. Zardari has risen to become a key figure in Pakistan’s politics, and he may have considered Mr. Fahim a threat to his own political ambitions.

Mrs. Bhutto’s son was appointed party chairman after his mother’s death, but his father is running things while the 19-year-old continues his studies at Oxford University.

Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif, who was ousted in a 1999 coup by Mr. Musharraf, have pledged that their coalition will tackle the massive challenges facing Pakistan, including a wave of Islamist militancy, high inflation and electricity shortages.

They have also vowed to work to strengthen democracy.

A confrontation still looms between Mr. Musharraf and Mr. Sharif, who has been one of the most vocal in calling for the unpopular president’s resignation or impeachment.