Bhutto's widower will seek Pakistan's presidency

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 23, 2008 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Asif Zardari, the highly controversial widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, run for president of Pakistan, it was announced Saturday, further inflaming relations within the coalition government.

Zardari is almost certain to be elected, as his Pakistan People's Party has the backing of enough members of parliament, even if his main coalition partner doesn't support him.

On Monday, US ally Pervez Musharraf resigned as president of nuclear-armed Pakistan. Zardari, a pro-Western leader, is likely to maintain a close partnership with Washington in the "war on terror".

"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 Raza Rabbani told a news conference.

Presidential elections are scheduled for Sept. 6. So far Zardari is the only contender.

Should he win, it would be a remarkable political ascent for Zardari, who previously lived in his wife's shadow and was dubbed "Mr. 10 Percent" for his alleged corruption when she was twice prime minister.

Zardari spent 11 years in jail, in two stints, over dozens of charges that were never proven. Those included two murder cases, and corruption accusations in Pakistan and elsewhere. Released from jail in 2004, he'd been living extravagantly in exile in New York until his wife's assassination in December while she was campaigning for re-election.

While he has never been convicted of any crime, he's widely vilified within the country and even within the Pakistan People's Party — where the allegations surrounding him were blamed for tarnishing his wife's reputation. Newsweek magazine reported last week that Swiss prosecutors are still pursuing him. As president, he'd have immunity from prosecution in Pakistan, however.

Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, the other main party in the coalition, complained that it was not consulted about Zardari's candidature.

Sharif is also furious that the Pakistan People's Party Saturday again failed to provide a firm commitment for implementing a pledge to reinstate judges Musharraf fired in November. Three previous deadlines for restoring the judiciary have been missed by the coalition.

"It (the president) should be someone who is a national figure, has national stature and is non-partisan," Sharif said before the announcement.

Sharif, who has championed the judges, has repeatedly threatened to walk out of the coalition. That would plunge Pakistan into a new political crisis.

Still, Zardari's bid for the presidency is popular within his own party and has drawn support from smaller parties within and outside the coalition.

Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper called him "the only man in the political system who can communicate with all the components of it, including the military establishment." The newspaper also said Zardari was most able to work with the military on the war on terror "in order to keep Washington in the right humor."

As the leader of the biggest party in the coalition, Zardari is already regarded as the most powerful person in Pakistan, rather than the country's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, his party colleague who appears to defer to Zardari on all important decisions.

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