ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – After winning Pakistan’s parliamentary elections last month, the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto will name a new prime minister next week, a spokesman said Saturday.
Followers of Bhutto, a two-time prime minister who returned to Pakistan last year only to die in a December suicide attack, won the largest number of seats in Feb. 18 polls, ousting allies of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf and easing Pakistan back toward democracy after years of military rule. Her Pakistan People’s Party has pledged to form a coalition government with the party of another former premier, Nawaz Sharif, after the new parliament convenes Monday.
With the largest number of seats, it falls to the PPP to name a prime minister. On Saturday, party spokesman Farhatullah Babar said a decision was imminent.
“Our party will come up with a name next week,” Babar told The Associated Press.
Parliament would then have to confirm the nomination. A caretaker prime minister, Mohammedmian Soomro, has held the office since November, after parliament’s mandate expired and before new elections could be held. Soomro presided over the last Cabinet meeting Saturday in Islamabad.
Among those considered front-runners for the position is Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the PPP vice chairman and a veteran politician whose father helped Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, establish the party in the 1960s.
On Saturday, Fahim called himself a “strong candidate” and said he was puzzled by the PPP’s delay in naming him. “What I have done wrong to my party?” he told Pakistan’s Express news channel.
Addressing rumors that he had fallen out with the party’s leadership over an alleged secret meeting between him and Musharraf, Fahim said: “If anyone saw me meeting with Musharraf, he should come forward and say it.”
The PPP’s delay in naming Fahim or another candidate has fueled growing speculation that Bhutto’s widower, who jointly leads the party with the couple’s 19-year-old son, wants the job for himself.
Asif Ali Zardari is currently ineligible because he did not run for a seat in parliament. But he could maneuver by naming an interim prime minister, then contest a byelection and win a seat to qualify as early as this summer.
On Friday, an anti-corruption court quashed the last outstanding graft charge in Pakistan against Zardari, in a case involving the import of a German limousine.
A money laundering case is still pending against him in Switzerland.
The ruling lifted a potential roadblock to Zardari taking a role in the Cabinet; Pakistani law bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding office.
Since his wife’s death, Zardari has become an increasingly key decision-maker in Bhutto’s party as well as in Pakistan’s opposition movement.
But many Pakistanis view Zardari as a symbol of the corruption and misrule by civilian governments that nearly bankrupted the country in the 1990s. They know him as “Mr. 10 Percent” for allegedly pocketing kickbacks when his wife was prime minister.
Zardari spent years in jail without being convicted and insists all the graft charges were politically motivated. Six other corruption cases dating from his wife’s time in office in the 1990s had already been dismissed against Zardari, including charges related to the construction of a polo ground at the prime minister’s residence and the purchase of thousands of Polish tractors.
Meanwhile, a judge in Karachi on Saturday granted the police authority to question a man arrested in connection with an attack at a welcoming rally for Bhutto last October that killed 150 people.
Bhutto survived the bombing but died in another attack two months later.
Investigator Khalid Ranjha said the suspect, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, would be held until at least March 27 for questioning.