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Pakistani lawmakers begin presidential vote

Latest update : 2008-09-06

Weeks after Pervez Musharraf vacated the post, Pakistani legislators are voting to elect his successor. The winner is widely expected to be Asif Ali Zardari, controversial widower of slain opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto.

 

Members of Pakistan's parliament and four provincial assemblies began voting in a presidential election on Saturday to choose a replacement for Pervez Musharraf, who resigned last month.

 

Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose Pakistan People's Party (PPP) heads a coalition government, is expected to win. The result is due later on Saturday.

 

"God willing, the PPP has a clear majority and the PPP will win. Mr Zardari will become president and will make the democratic and parliamentary system strong," PPP spokeswoman and member of parliament Farzana Raja said on her way in to the assembly to vote.

 

Investors hope the election by members of the two-chamber parliament and four provincial assemblies will bring some stability after months of political turmoil that helped drag stocks and the rupee sharply lower.

 

Whoever wins will have to contend with a host of problems that have raised fears for the prospects of the nuclear-armed U.S. ally, including surging militant violence and an economy in crisis.

 

Zardari, known as a polo-playing playboy in his younger days, was thrust into the centre of politics by his wife's assassination on Dec. 27.

 

A February parliamentary election win by their Pakistan People's Party (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, and cleared the way for Zardari to win the top job.

 

His two rivals for president are Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, a former judge, nominated by ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif's party, and Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a senior official of the party that backed Musharraf and ruled under him.

 

The PPP has the most electoral college votes and despite some doubts about Zardari's suitability, party members will stick by him, making victory virtually a foregone conclusion, analysts say.

 

JAIL, DOUBTS

 

Zardari, 53, spent 11 years in jail on corruption and other charges stemming from his time in government when his wife was prime minister in the 1990s. He was never convicted and said the charges were politically motivated.

 

But in an indication of the doubts Zardari faces, a poll by Gallup Pakistan found only 26 percent of about 2,000 people questioned thought he should be president, while 44 percent didn't want any of the three candidates.

 

Political uncertainty, exacerbated by a split in the PPP-led coalition last month, together with security and economic worries have 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 some clarity. The rupee has lost 20 percent to the dollar this year but firmed to 76.40/50.

 

Dwindling foreign reserves, a widening current account deficit and sliding rupee could result in a ratings downgrade as doubts mount over its ability to meet external debt obligations.

 

But it will probably avoid sovereign debt default as its stability is such an important geopolitical factor institutions such as the International Monetary Fund will eventually help it meet its obligations, analysts say.

 

Zardari is close to the United States and has repeatedly stressed Pakistan's commitment to the campaign against militancy.

 

But he 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 this week.

 

Musharraf saw his popularity dive partly because he was viewed as too close to President George W. Bush. Zardari will walk a tightrope as he tries to assure Washington of his support on security while trying to calm public anger.

Date created : 2008-09-06

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