09/06/2008, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Asif Ali Zardari is Pakistan's new president

The president-elect, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party and widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, crushed the competition. His most urgent challenges include the fight against terrorism and the economic crisis. Voting marked by an attack in Peshawar that killed 16 people.

Islamabad (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Asif Ali Zardari is Pakistan's new president. The leader and co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, replaces Pervez Musharraf, who resigned last August 18 in order to avoid impeachment procedures against him.

Zadari won 493 votes (in unconfirmed preliminary electoral results) out of a total of 702, a margin much higher than the 352 votes necessary to win the country's highest office, far outstripping his competition. Saeed Zaman Siddiqui, supported by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is thought to have received 133 votes, while Mushahid Hussain, backed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) of former president Musharraf, won only 44 votes.

The total of 702 voters is made up of 342 members of the national assembly (the lower chamber), 100 members of the senate, and 65 votes for each of the four provincial assemblies, in which Zardari crushed the competition. In the province of Sindh, the president-elect won all of the 65 votes; in the North West Frontier Province, he obtained 56, and in Balochistan, 59. In the province of Punjab, the stronghold of former prime minister Sharif, he received only 22 votes, but the result was insignificant. He received 281 out of the 426 votes in parliament.

The members of the PPP hailed the triumph of their candidate as "a victory for democracy" in the country. Now the challenges begin for the new head of state, whom experts on international politics call "pro-Western", a close ally of Washington and a staunch supporter of America's war on terror. He will have to maneuver between the pressure exerted by the United States in the war against the Taliban on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the requests from the army, which is highly influential in the country's politics, and the anti-American sentiment widespread among Pakistanis, who see the United States as an enemy of Islam.

He will also have to overcome significant internal resistance and resolve the political and economic crisis underway in Pakistan for some time: at the end of August, a memorandum from the leader of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan emphasized Zardari's "inadequacy" to occupy the office of the presidency, and recalled that he has been "accused of corruption", although he has never been found guilty. Others in the country are instead commenting sarcastically on his meteoric political ascension, which saw him go from being "simply the husband [of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, killed in an attack at the end of December 2007] to being head of state", and stress that he will have to work hard to "improve his reputation", compromised by past scandals and rumors.

The voting was marked by fresh violence: a car bomb exploded at a police checkpoint in Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan, killing 16 people and wounding 40. It is a first warning sign for the president-elect, who with the war on terrorism is playing one of his strongest cards for winning the country's trust.

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