ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, swept to victory in a presidential election on Saturday.
Underscoring the problems he faces, a suicide car bomber killed at least 30 people in an attack on a police post in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Nearly 70 people were injured and police said the death toll could rise further as many people were buried under the rubble of nearby buildings brought down by the blast.
Investors and foreign allies led by the United States hope the election will bring some stability after months of political turmoil and rising militant violence. The uncertainty has dragged stocks and the rupee sharply lower.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed Zardari’s election and praised what she said was his emphasis on fighting terrorism. “Now with a new president, I think we have got a good way forward,” she told reporters.
A former businessman, Zardari is close to the United States and has stressed Pakistan’s commitment to the widely unpopular campaign against militancy.
Members of the two-chamber parliament and four provincial assemblies voted on a replacement for former army chief Pervez Musharraf, who resigned last month nine years after taking power in a coup.
Zardari, who had been widely expected to win, secured 480 out of 702 electoral college votes, according to unofficial Election Commission results.
A polo-playing playboy in his younger days, Zardari spent 11 years in jail on corruption and murder charges. He was never convicted and denied any wrongdoing, but faces widespread doubts about his suitability to be president.
Zardari told a gathering with party colleagues that his victory was the completion of the democratic process. “To those who would say the People’s Party, or the presidency, would be controversial under our guardianship, under our stewardship, I would say ‘listen to democracy’,” he said, flanked by his two daughters.
Their mother was killed in a suicide attack on Dec. 27 last year, weeks after returning from years in exile. Her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) now holds the presidency and leads the government.
Zardari, 53, will have to contend with a host of problems in the nuclear-armed U.S. ally, including militant violence and an economy in tatters.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said President George W. Bush was looking forward to working with Zardari on “issues important to both countries, including counterterrorism and making sure Pakistan has a stable and secure economy”.
The bomb in Peshawar destroyed the police post and brought down roofs of buildings, provincial police chief Malik Naveed Khan said. The bomber’s target was probably the provincial assembly where members were voting, he said. Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility.
Zardari was thrust into the centre of politics by his wife’s assassination. A February parliamentary election win for the PPP made him one of the most powerful figures in the country. His decision in August to begin impeachment proceedings against Musharraf led to the latter’s resignation. His two rivals in the vote were Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, a former judge, nominated by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, and Mushahid Hussain Sayed, from the party that backed Musharraf and ruled under him.
Zardari will take office as anger with the United States is boiling after a bloody incursion by U.S. ground troops into a remote village on the Afghan border on Wednesday. He will walk a tightrope between reassuring Washington on his efforts against militancy while calming public anger.
In a show of indignation over the raid, authorities blocked a major fuel supply route for Western forces in Afghanistan, Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar told Dawn Television.
Most fuel and other supplies for U.S. forces in Afghanistan are trucked through Pakistan, crossing the border at two points, Torkham, near Peshawar, and Chaman to the southwest.
The Chaman crossing, where supplies cross into the Afghan south, was operating normally.
Political uncertainty, exacerbated by a split in the PPP-led coalition last month, together with security and economic worries, has sapped investor confidence and dragged Pakistani stocks down 34 percent this year.
The main index rose 1 percent on Friday, helped by optimism the vote will bring clarity. The rupee has lost 20 percent to the dollar this year but firmed on Friday.
Some commentators fear rivalry with Sharif, head of the country’s second biggest party, could herald a return to the tumultuous politics of the 1990s. “The real test has begun. Terrorism and the economy will have to controlled and if they do, they could go a long way. But if not, they’ll be out in two years,” said retired teacher Sajjad Ali Shah.