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Bhutto's Widower Elected President In Pakistan

JACKI LYDEN, host:

To Pakistan now, where just nine months after his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated, Asif Ali Zardari has been chosen as the new president. But the day was marred by a suicide bomber's attack in the city of Peshawar, killing at least 30 people.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: Everyone knew Zardari would win it. This didn't deter his supporters from celebrating a landslide. Zardari took almost 70 percent of the electoral college votes from Pakistan's national and provincial assemblies. Afterwards, with his two daughters at his side, Zardari credited his late wife Benazir with his victory.

Mr. ASIF ALI ZARDARI (President-Elect, Pakistan): It is the philosophy of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto in which she believe, which says democracy is the best revenge. She taught us how to live; she taught us how to do politics.

REEVES: Zardari's election makes him one of Pakistan's most powerful civilian leaders in the country's 61-year history. He's in charge of the largest political party, which heads the coalition government. As president, he's also empowered to appoint the military chiefs and provincial governors and dismiss parliament.

Today, Zardari sought to allay fears that he'll be a one-man show, like Pervez Musharraf, the military ruler whose job he's taken.

Mr. ZARDARI: Parliament is sovereign. This president shall be subservient to the parliament.

REEVES: Zardari's election marks a remarkable reversal of fortune. He spent more than 11 years in prison accused of corruption and even murder, although he was never convicted in court. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed his election as a positive step. Zardari's critics take a different view. They include political commentator Shireen Mazari.

Ms. SHIREEN MAZARI (Political Commentator): I think it's a nightmare, and Mr. Zardari's reputation is dubious. He has arrived at this position purely by an accident of marriage. He has nothing to commend himself professionally.

REEVES: Farah Ispahani, a parliamentarian from Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party, says Zardari is better qualified to be president than many realize.

Ms. FARAH ISPAHANI (Parliamentarian, Pakistan Peoples Party): Well, I think Mr. Zardari has been underestimated for a very, very, very long time. People forget that he's been elected to the National Assembly of Pakistan twice. Once while he was in jail, he won his election. He's been a senator; he's been a federal minister.

REEVES: Voting was still going on when a brutal reminder came of the challenges Zardari's facing. A suicide bomber in a pickup truck packed with explosives detonated in the city of Peshawar. The bomb destroyed a police post. Dozens of people were killed and injured. Some were buried under a large mound of rubble.

Spiraling violence in northwest Pakistan dominated this election. There was uproar in Pakistan this week when U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan crossed into Pakistan and raided a village in a tribal area where the Taliban and al-Qaida take refuge. Some Pakistani estimates say up to 20 people were killed.

Zardari's considered a firm U.S. ally in the so-called war on terror, but he'll be under intense domestic pressure to stand up to the U.S. Nisar Memon, an opposition senator, will be among those applying that pressure.

Senator NISAR MEMON (Pakistan Muslim League): His task will be to ensure that he does defend the frontiers of Pakistan. It has now become the war of terror of America, and therefore he need to rethink the whole thing after this invasion of Pakistan territory.

REEVES: This issue is of particular concern to these people. Right now, they're living in a camp near Peshawar for displaced families. They're from a tribal area called Bajaur. Several hundred thousand people fled Bajaur last month to escape fighting between the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani army, though some are now returning. They say many of their homes have been flattened and many people have died.

Kahm Baheder(ph), a weather-beaten, bearded man is a farmer.

Mr. KAHM BAHEDER (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: It doesn't matter who runs this country, he says wearily, so long as they make sure we don't suffer anymore.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.