Saturday, August 23, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s main ruling party on Friday proposed the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as Pakistan’s next president, making Asif Ali Zardari the clear front-runner.

The move could hasten the collapse of a ruling coalition that has struggled to tackle the growing strength of Taliban militants, who claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings Thursday that left 67 people dead.

On Friday, Pakistan’s election commission announced that federal and provincial lawmakers will elect U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf‘s successor in simultaneous votes on Sept. 6. Candidates must file their nomination papers on Monday.

Sherry Rehman, a spokeswoman for the Pakistan People’s Party, said the party’s top decision-making body unanimously backed Mr. Zardari for president.

Ms. Rehman said Mr. Zardari told the gathering that he would announce whether to accept the nomination within 24 hours.

Mr. Zardari leads a coalition that swept Mr. Musharraf’s supporters aside in February parliamentary elections. Mr. Musharraf resigned Monday to avoid impeachment.

The alliance vowed to strip the presidency of the powers accumulated by Mr. Musharraf, including the right to dissolve parliament and appoint the chiefs of Pakistan’s powerful military.

But it quickly became mired in wrangling over other issues, principally how to restore the judges purged from the Supreme Court when Mr. Musharraf imposed emergency rule last year.

Mr. Zardari’s nomination comes as a crisis over the reinstatement of the judges was narrowly averted Friday.

The party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the second largest in the ruling coalition, had threatened to quit the coalition without an agreement by Friday on the judges’ reinstatement.

After talks with other coalition leaders, Mr. Sharif set Wednesday as a new deadline - the third since Mr. Musharraf’s ouster - to restore the judges.

Mr. Sharif on Friday accused Mr. Zardari of failing to respect an agreement to bring back the justices within 24 hours of Mr. Musharraf’s resignation.

A leader of a powerful lawyers’ movement that has mounted street protests in favor of the judges issued a veiled warning against any further backsliding.

“Many promises to the nation have not been honored,” Tariq Mehmood said. “If somebody thinks that people will be satisfied after Musharraf’s removal, let me tell you that people want the rule of law.”

The tensions come as the country faces renewed resistance from militants.

On Friday, security forces killed 16 Taliban militants - including two suspected would-be suicide bombers - after stopping a suspicious vehicle on a bridge near Hangu in the country’s volatile northwest, the military said.

Meanwhile, the death toll from Thursday’s suicide bombings climbed to 67 people with 102 wounded, police said. Authorities arrested a man they believe would have been a third bomber not far from the scene, a local police official said.

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