The party of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto nominated former National Assembly speaker Yousaf Raza Gilani as its candidate for prime minister. (Report: M.N. Bauer)
Five years in jail proved Yousuf Raza Gilani's loyalty to Benazir Bhutto -- but that dedication could soon see the man set to be Pakistan's next prime minister stepping aside for her widower.
Slain opposition leader Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) nominated the 58-year-old former parliamentary speaker as its candidate for the premiership on Saturday after the party won elections on February 18.
Gilani's low-key style helped him come from nowhere to win a tight race for the nomination. Another big help was his closeness to Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari, which he reflected in his first comments afterwards.
"I miss our great leader Benazir Bhutto," he told AFP. "I am grateful to the party leadership."
Party insiders and analysts said Zardari trusted Gilani because they both spent time in jail under the regime of President Pervez Musharraf on charges of corruption stemming from Bhutto's terms in power.
Gilani's mother and sister died while he was behind bars.
"He has won his political spurs by spending more than five years in jail during Musharraf's dictatorship," political analyst and leading Pakistani newspaper columnist Shafqat Mahmood told AFP.
"He will be the kind of figure who will be acceptable to most people because he is a soft person. As far as the party unity is concerned, it will be in the domain of Mr Zardari."
Analysts questioned not so much whether Zardari would remain the power behind the throne, but rather whether father-of-five Gilani is merely warming the seat for Bhutto's widower for a few months.
Zardari was not eligible to be premier because he is not an MP, but party insiders have said he may decide to fight a by-election in May and take the post himself.
"Zardari will be the person who will be calling the shots along with his close associates," said Hasan Askari, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC.
Askari told AFP that a Zardari premiership "is not announced as part of the plan but this option stays open depending on the performance of the government, it is possible."
But he said that Gilani's main hope of staying in power was that he was "expected to take a tough line against Musharraf as he has spent five years in jail during Musharraf's regime."
This factor won him the backing of the coalition partners that will join the PPP in government -- particularly the party of former premier Nawaz Sharif, the man ousted by Musharraf in a coup in 1999.
However close friend Khawaja Adnan, who was in Rawalpindi's harsh Adiala Jail at the same time as Gilani, said that he would not necessarily hold a grudge against Musharraf.
"Gilani is a non-vindictive politician who firmly believes in the superiority of the party... he has suffered for the restoration of democracy in the country," Adnan told AFP.
Gilani was born in 1950 into a family with a long heritage as guardians of Islamic shrines in the central city of Multan. His father was an MP and a landowner, although not on the scale of many other top PPP figures.
He took a masters in journalism and entered politics in the 1980s, when he was part of a cabinet under the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who had Bhutto's father hanged in 1979.
But he quit in 1988 to join the PPP, defeating Sharif in elections that year after Zia's death in a mysterious air crash.
Bhutto appointed Gilani as a minister in her first government from 1988 to 1990. He was then speaker from 1993 to 1996 in Bhutto's second government.
But after Musharraf grabbed power Gilani was targeted in an anti-corruption crackdown.
He was charged with illegally granting 350 government jobs to people and for excessive use of telephones and cars as speaker, and spent five years in jail.
The PPP said the charges against Gilani and other members including Zardari were politically motivated.
All charges against holders of public office from that time were wiped out under an amnesty deal that allowed Bhutto to return from self-imposed exile in October.
Pakistan's parliament is now set to elect the premier on Monday, with Gilani a near certainty thanks to the majority the PPP and its coalition partners hold.
But one final hurdle remains -- his only son is set to marry in the southern city of Karachi on the same day, leaving him facing a tough first day on the job.
Date created : 2008-03-23