Bhutto widower sweeps Pakistan presidential polls
by Arthur MacMillan
ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Asif Ali Zardari secured a large win in Pakistan's presidential elections on Saturday, capping a remarkable rise from jail, exile and his wife Benazir Bhutto's assassination just nine months ago.
The controversial front-runner swept a poll among lawmakers to become the 14th president in Pakistan's short but turbulent history, taking power in the world's only nuclear-armed Islamic state and frontline "war on terror" ally.
"It is an historic win. It is a victory for democracy," said Sherry Rehman, the country's information minister and a close aide of Bhutto.
"This man suffered jail for more than 11 years for the sake of democracy and today he is elected as the president of the country and it is a sign of the strengthening of democracy."
Zardari secured 281 out of 426 parliamentary votes and won a thumping majority in three of the four provincial assemblies forming the presidential electoral college, officials said.
The 53-year-old defeated retired chief justice Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, who was backed by former premier Nawaz Sharif, and Mushahid Hussain, a close aide of Musharraf.
He had been the clear favourite in a three-way race to take power after Pervez Musharraf's nearly nine-year rule marked by Islamic militancy and economic turmoil.
Security was tight as secret voting began shortly after 10:00 am (0400 GMT) and ended at 3:00 pm in the two chambers of parliament and four provincial assemblies.
Rampant militancy was underscored in the northwestern city of Peshawar, where voting was taking place, as a suicide car-bomber rammed a police checkpost killing 16 people and wounding more than 80.
Nearly 1,200 people have been killed in bombings and suicide attacks across Pakistan in the past year, in unrest seen as a backlash by militants angry at former president Musharraf's support for the United States.
Tensions rose further this week after a failed assassination attempt on Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, whose car was hit by sniper fire as it drove to meet him at an airport on Wednesday.
Zardari himself had already moved house due to fears of attempts being made on his life. His wife was killed in a gun-and-suicide attack at a campaign rally last December.
Voting in Peshawar was briefly interrupted as a 5.6-magnitude earthquake shook parts of Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan, prompting lawmakers to flee outside.
Musharraf's August 18 resignation in the face of impeachment charges triggered the election. Zardari will now face a series of challenges as president.
Pakistan's economy is backsliding with inflation rampant and a volatile political situation contributing to a 40 percent fall on the stock market since January, in a country already reliant on foreign aid.
The election also came amid mounting international concern about the stability of Pakistan which under Musharraf backed the United States after the September 11 attacks in 2001, and in its subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.
Billions of dollars of aid flowed to Islamabad in return.
However, the American military contends that Pakistan's tribal areas have become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants to use as a launch pad for attacks on international soldiers based across the Afghan border.
As co-chairman of the PPP, Zardari already heads a fragile coalition government which, although still in office, recently lost the backing of Sharif's party.
He now gains wide powers including the right to dismiss governments and appoint leaders of the military, which has ruled Pakistan for half of its 61-year existence.
Zardari, once dubbed "Mr. Ten Percent," has spent a total of 11 years in jail on charges ranging from corruption to murder. An amnesty signed by Musharraf cleared him of all corruption charges last year.