ISLAMABAD // The widower of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto will succeed Pervez Musharraf as president of Pakistan after winning a landslide victory in today's election. Partial results announced by officials after separate votes in the federal and provincial assemblies show that Asif Ali Zardari won an overwhelming majority of the votes. Pro-Zardari lawmakers, some in tears, shouted "Long live Bhutto!" as the results came in. The couple's two teenage daughters, one carrying a portrait of their late mother, smiled from the gallery. But today also brought a brutal reminder of the threats to the nuclear-armed nation's stability when a suicide car bomber killed 16 people and wounded 40 others in the northwestern city of Peshawar. At least five of the dead were policemen.
Voting was unaffected and no politicians were among the dead or injured. In recent weeks, the Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for a string of suicide bombings they have called revenge for military offensives in the region, which borders Afghanistan. The US has pushed Pakistan to crack down on insurgents. A deadly American-led ground attack in Pakistani territory on Wednesday sparked outrage and embarrassed Mr Zardari's party. Mr Zardari faced off against Mushahid Hussain, a senator from the pro-Musharraf party routed in February and Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, a former judge put forward by the opposition party of another ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.
Legislators in the four provincial assemblies were eligible to vote in the secret ballot. With this win, Mr Zardari, the head of Pakistan's main ruling party, has become one of the most powerful civilian leaders in Pakistan's 61-year history. Like his late wife, Mr Zardari is generally considered a pro-West liberal, and he is not expected to change Pakistan's commitment as an ally in the US war on terrorism despite the recent raid and suspected US missile strikes along the border.
Mr Zardari and senior party lieutenants have matched Mr Musharraf's tough line against terrorism, insisting the battle against Islamic militants is Pakistan's war. But while that plays well in Washington, the test will be how much clout Mr Zardari wields over the military, whose stop-start battles with militants have failed to halt the rising strength of the Taliban. Mr Zardari and his party also have promised to trim the powers of the presidency - enhanced by constitutional changes under Mr Musharraf - to bring it more in balance with the parliament and the prime minister. The president can dissolve parliament and appoint army chiefs, and chairs the joint civilian-military committee that controls Pakistan's nuclear weapons. A horse-loving aristocrat who has spent more years in prison than in politics, Mr Zardari has impressed and surprised many with his ability to concentrate power since his wife was killed in a December and he inherited the leadership of her party.
Until his arranged marriage to Ms Bhutto in 1987, Mr Zardari was the unremarkable son of a landowning businessman and tribal chief from the southern province of Sindh. Like many of this Muslim country's elite, he attended Christian missionary schools and a top boarding school on the banks of the Indus River near Hyderabad. He has claimed to hold a bachelor's degree from a business school in London, but his party has been unable to produce a certificate or establish what he studied.
Mr Zardari was quickly accused of meddling in the affairs of Ms Bhutto's party and sidelining party stalwarts in favour of cronies. He served as minister for the environment and investment in the second of her two governments, each of which was dismissed before the end of its term for corruption and misrule. Foes and many ordinary Pakistanis still refer to him as Mr 10 Per cent, because of allegations that he pocketed commissions on government contracts for everything from a license to import gold to the purchase of 8,000 Polish tractors.
Mr Zardari endured about 11 years in jail in two spells as well as marathon court proceedings. But he was never convicted at home or in corruption and money-laundering investigations in Britain, Spain and Switzerland. Mr Zardari insists the cases were politically motivated attempts - first by archrival Mr Sharif, later by Mr Musharraf and the military-dominated establishment he represented - to demonise his wife and prevent her return from self-imposed exile in Dubai and London.
When she did return home in October, it was under an ill-fated power-sharing deal with Mr Musharraf, who ordered an amnesty covering all corruption cases pending from Ms Bhutto's terms of office. Mr Zardari did not initially follow her home. He spent much of the time after his release from jail in 2004 in New York and reportedly received treatment for ailments including heart and back problems that his aides attributed to his prolonged incarceration.
In a court case in London, his lawyers even argued he had suffered stress-induced mental illness - though supporters insist he has made a full recovery and is fit to be president. Having rushed home to bury Ms Bhutto, Mr Zardari revealed his political steel in taking the reins of her party and leading it to victory in February parliamentary elections. By outmanoeuvring Mr Sharif, who last month quit the ruling coalition after accusing Mr Zardari of duplicity, Mr Zardari showed a shrewdness that has impressed many, and some are willing to wait and see whether he can stabilise Pakistan - and whether he has learnt from any sins in his past.
Meanwhile, a 5.6-magnitude earthquake jolted Pakistan and Afghanistan this morning, briefly interrupting the voting process as lawmakers fled an assembly building when the quake hit, officials and witnesses said. The lawmakers who fled an assembly building in Pakistan's northern city of Peshawar returned quickly after realising the tremor was moderate, witnesses said. *Agencies