- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s new National Assembly yesterday elected its first female speaker — a woman who looks remarkably like assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, except that she has a slightly darker complexion and does not habitually wear a white head scarf.

Fahmida Mirza, 51, — Mrs. Bhutto was 54 — received an overwhelming 249 votes to her opponent’s 70, in a lower house dominated by the four-party coalition that is scheduled to form the new government tomorrow, as Pakistan headed for a new crisis over moves to reinstate the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and 60 other superior court judges who were fired by President Pervez Musharraf in November.

Mrs. Mirza, who is a medical doctor but earns her living from a large farming business, is a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which also gave the country its first female prime minister, Mrs. Bhutto, who was assassinated on Dec. 27.

Mrs. Bhutto’s election in 1988 to the prime minister’s seat, at age 35, made her the first woman to lead the government of a Muslim-majority country in the modern age.

Mrs. Mirza has Mrs. Bhutto’s poise and eloquence, speaking in a slow, deliberate manner that compels one to stop and listen. Like Mrs. Bhutto, she was elected directly to her open seat in the lower house, and was not from among the 60 female legislators who entered the assembly on seats reserved for women.

Mrs. Mirza is from the province of Sindh, leading to speculation that the PPP would choose someone from Punjab as prime minister to head the coalition government.

Mrs. Mirza, who has vowed to run parliament “like a home,” immediately got down to business yesterday, inviting Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, the new opposition leader, to speak first, the Associated Press reported.

She later made her first intervention, ordering that private TV channels be allowed to broadcast the proceedings after journalists complained that staff had disconnected their cables.

A PPP spokesman, meanwhile, said Mrs. Bhutto’s teenage son returned to Pakistan yesterday to announce the party’s nominee for prime minister, Agence France-Presse reported.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, a 19-year-old student at Britain’s Oxford University, was named Mrs. Bhutto’s heir apparent in December. While he is completing his studies, his father, Asif Ali Zardari, has taken the reins of the party.

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