ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – The party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on Thursday deferred a decision on who should become Pakistan’s prime minister, deepening uncertainty about how a new government will handle President Pervez Musharraf.
Bhutto’s party, which finished first in last month’s elections, had been expected to nominate Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a longtime Bhutto aide from her home province of Sindh, as its candidate for the premiership.
But a meeting of its newly elected lawmakers at the residence of her widower broke up Thursday without even discussing the merits of the four main candidates, participants said.
“The consultation process will continue,” Fahim told reporters as he left, shrugging of questions about the cause of the delay. “This is democracy.”
Lawmakers said Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s husband and co-chairman of the party, had told them he would discuss the nomination with them in small groups in the next few days before making a decision. “The legacy of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto must be fulfilled, and the party and democracy must be strengthened. Individuals come and go, but parties have to live on,” said Shah Mahmood Qureshi, one of the other contenders.
Moderate, secular parties routed Islamists as well as the former ruling party of Musharraf in the Feb. 18 parliamentary and provincial elections, prompting calls for him to resign.
But the U.S.-backed president is resisting, raising the risk of fresh political turbulence in Pakistan just as it faces surging Islamic militancy and looming economic problems.
Musharraf, who retired as army chief in November to become a purely civilian president, is expected to convene parliament later this month and invite the People’s Party to form a government.
The party wants to form a coalition including the supporters of another former premier, Nawaz Sharif, and cut back the sweeping powers accumulated by Musharraf in eight years of military rule.
The new government is likely to try to remove the presidential power to fire the prime minister and dissolve the assemblies. It may also abolish the National Security Council, which gave the military a formal say in security policy. However, Bhutto’s party has steered away from an open confrontation with Musharraf, whose crackdown on the media and the judiciary last year has left him politically isolated and deeply unpopular.
The most ticklish issue is whether to restore Supreme Court judges purged after Musharraf declared emergency rule in November. The court was about to rule on the legality of his re-election as president the month before.
In an interview with Dawn News television broadcast on Wednesday, Fahim was evasive about what he thought should happen to Musharraf or the judges. “Let the parliament debate each and every issue and let the majority take a decision. This is democracy,” Fahim said.
The United States and other foreign backers hope the new government will prove a stable partner committed to preventing al-Qaeda and the Taliban from mounting attacks in Afghanistan and the West.
In a move that could smooth relations between Bhutto’s party and Musharraf, an anti-corruption court on Wednesday quashed five graft charges against Zardari.
The charges were dropped under an order signed by the president last year which persuaded Bhutto to return only to be assassinated at a campaign rally in December. Zardari’s acquittal will dismay some Pakistanis who view their ruling elite as corrupt and incompetent. But many people have more immediate concerns, such as fast-rising prices and shortages of fuel and even flour to bake bread. On Thursday morning, a massive power outage struck Karachi, the country’s commercial hub, leaving millions without power for several hours. Similar cuts last summer prompted rioting across the city. The caretaker government last week slashed subsidies on gasoline prices in a bid to contain a ballooning budget deficit.