ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Assassinated former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s widower will be a presidential candidate, an official of his party said on Saturday, a move that will be controversial if the presidency retains strong powers.
Who will replace Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president last Monday and whose strongman rule was unpopular with most Pakistanis, is one of a number of issues preoccupying ruling coalition parties as economic and security problems mount.
The Pakistan People’s Party, which Asif Ali Zardari leads, said on Friday it wanted him to run in the election for president, by legislators, on Sept. 6. “Zardari has accepted the Pakistan People’s Party’s unanimous drafting of him and he will be the candidate of the Pakistan People’s Party,” senior party official Mian Raza Rabbani told a news conference.
No other candidate has declared an intention to stand.
The leader of Pakistan’s second biggest party, which is in an uneasy coalition with Zardari, declined earlier to comment on Zardari’s expected nomination but said the post should be stripped of powers, in particular that to dismiss parliament.
The coalition government led by Bhutto’s party has been riven by a dispute over the judiciary with the number two party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, threatening to pull out.
Insecurity, uncertainty over the future of the government and economic worries have undermined investor confidence and sent the country’s financial markets on a downward spiral.
Pakistan’s stocks and currency strengthened when Musharraf stepped down last Monday but have weakened with no end in sight to the infighting between the two main parties. The rupee set a new low of about 77.15 to the dollar on Friday but ended at 76.10/20. Stocks finished 2.4 percent lower.
Pakistan’s stock market, which rose for six consecutive years to 2007 and was one of the best-performing markets in Asia in that period, has fallen about 29 percent this year.
As the politicians bicker, militant violence has surged.
Troops killed 35 militants in fighting in the Swat Valley northwest of Islamabad on Saturday, shortly after a suicide car-bomber killed eight policemen.
On Thursday, two suicide bombers killed about 70 people outside the country’s main defence industry complex. Earlier, senior Bhutto party officials travelled to Lahore to discuss the presidency with Sharif. He was non-committal on Zardari’s nomination, saying he had to discuss the matter with his party. But he said he wanted the presidency stripped of the power to dismiss parliament. If the presidency retained that power, then Sharif said he wanted to see a neutral president. “It should be someone who is a national figure, has national stature and is non-partisan,” he told a news conference.
Bhutto party official Rabbani said the question of whether to strip the presidency of powers would be dealt with after the presidential election. Analysts say Zardari is unlikely to want to be a purely ceremonial president.
The PPP and Sharif’s party were bitter rivals during the 1990s when Bhutto and Sharif served two terms as prime minister.
Thrown together by opposition to Musharraf, differences are likely to loom larger now that he has gone, analysts say. Their main dispute is over the fate of judges purged by Musharraf last year. Sharif has been demanding they be restored to the bench and has threatened to pull his party out of the coalition if that is not done by Monday.
The PPP is reluctant to restore the judges because of concern the deposed chief justice might take up challenges to an amnesty granted to Zardari and other party leaders from graft charges last year, analysts say.