Bhutto's party picks a consensus-builder to be Pakistan's next premier

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's dominant opposition party on Saturday announced that Yousuf Raza Gilani, a soft-spoken consensus-builder, will be the next prime minister.

Pakistan's People's Party, formerly led by Benazir Bhutto, who was slain in December, chose Gilani after an agonizing internal struggle. The party won the biggest bloc of seats in parliament in Feb. 18 elections, but not enough to form a government. It is organizing a coalition government with the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which came in second.

Parliament is to vote Monday on the new prime minister, who will take over command of the government from U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf. Under Pakistan's constitution, the prime minister, not the president, runs the government. Washington, which had been used to working with Musharraf, who's run the country since 1999, must get used to dealing also with Gilani and Zardari.

Gilani was chosen by party chairman Asif Zardari, Bhutto's widower. It is expected that Zardari will be the real power behind the throne, and many suspect he will become prime minister himself in time, though first he must win a seat in parliament.

Gilani was sent to prison in 2001 by Musharraf on allegations of corruption, which were never proven. His arrest was widely regarded as a crude attempt by the regime to force him to quit his party and join the Musharraf government.

He was in and out of jail for the next five years. It was alleged that, when he served as speaker of parliament in the mid-90s, he distributed jobs as favors. He won enormous credit in the People's Party for not "breaking" under the pressure.

"The distance between jail and prime minister's house is short," Gilani said in a recent television interview. "[But] I have no lust for power."

"He's made sacrifices for the party," said Karachi-based political analyst Ikram Seghal. "Yousuf Raza Gilani has got no particular ideology and he's not a very charismatic figure, but he's a safe choice."

Shafqat Mahmood, a former aide to Bhutto, said: "He [Gilani] is a good choice. He's been a minister, he was speaker. He's a consensus-builder, he's an acceptable personality."

Gilani kept a low-profile during the contest for prime minister and will now lead a government hostile to Musharraf. Since the Feb. 18 elections, he's often given the impression that he was barely in the race. "Being prime minister is not a bed of roses," he said repeatedly.

Gilani comes from a family of hereditary religious figures, which should draw support from conservatives. Yet, he is a modern cosmopolitan man who, it is believed, will also be able to bring more sophisticated urban voters to the party.

The party may have chosen him in part also to balance its geographical weaknesses. Gilani is from Punjab province, which dominates Pakistan politically and economically, but the People's Party has never been strong there. Its past leaders have all come from the less developed southern province of Sindh.

Since Bhutto's assassination, Zardari has established an iron grip on the party, leading to feverish speculation that he will become prime ministers himself, perhaps within months. Zardari, previously controversial because of alleged corruption, has emerged as a mature politician who managed to forge a coalition with Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, the People's Party's traditional rival.

The choice of Gilani was not entirely risk-free. In picking him, Zardari passed over the party deputy, Amin Fahim, who enjoys a strong following. It's possible that Fahim, who has voiced bitter disappointment since it became clear that he was out of the running, will now lead a break-away faction of the party.