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Lawmakers back Benazir Bhutto loyalist as Pakistans first female parliament speaker
Pakistan New Speake 5463138
Fehmida Mirza, arrives at Parliament in Islamabad, Pakistan on Wednesday, March 19, 2008. Pakistan's new parliament was set to elect Mirza, the country's first female speaker following her nomination by the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. - photo by Associated Press
    ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Legislators elected Pakistan’s first female speaker of parliament Wednesday, seating a follower — and lookalike — of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
    Fehmida Mirza’s elevation reflected the air of liberalism blowing through the country’s politics since voters delivered a resounding defeat to backers of President Pervez Musharraf, the former general who has been a close U.S. ally.
    However, many Pakistanis are warily watching the victorious elitist parties, worried over whether politicians whose civilian governments in the 1990s were tainted by corruption and ineptitude will be able to deal with Islamic militants and economic hardships.
    In a first sign of trouble, the new leaders are struggling to agree on who should be prime minister. There was less of a problem in picking the speaker.
    Mirza, a businesswoman and physician elected to parliament three times, won 249 of the 324 votes cast in the National Assembly, parliament’s lower house. Israr Tareen, a coal-mining magnate and Musharraf supporter, got only 70. Five ballots were invalid.
    ‘‘Being a woman, it gives me immense pride and happiness to see you on that chair,’’ Saima Akhtar Bharwana, a lawmaker from Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, said after Mirza was sworn in.
    ‘‘You do resemble Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Sahiba, and I wish and hope that you do resemble her and match her, match in intelligence and wit that she possessed,’’ Bharwana said.
    Sympathy over Bhutto’s slaying in a gun-and-suicide-bomb attack Dec. 27 helped carry her party to first place in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections. Her party is preparing to lead a new coalition government united against Musharraf after eight years of his military rule.
    The achievement of Mirza, 51, is modest compared to that of Bhutto, who was the first woman to head the government of a Muslim-majority country in the modern age.
    But Tariq Azim, a senator for Musharraf’s defeated party, said Mirza’s selection would improve Pakistan’s image — long tainted by reports of widespread rights abuses against women.
    ‘‘The house will be more disciplined and better managed, as you know there is more respect for a woman in our country,’’ Azim said.
    As Mizra’s victory was announced, lawmakers from both political camps slapped their desks loudly by way of applause.
    She stood, smiled modestly and repeatedly touched her forehead in a gesture of thanks. She then donned the black robe of office and took the oath from the outgoing speaker.
    Mirza, who has promised to run parliament ‘‘like a home,’’ got straight to business, inviting Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, the new opposition leader, to speak first.
    Elahi said Musharraf’s supporters would avoid the desk-thumping and scuffling in parliament that in the past made Pakistan almost ungovernable and paved the way for repeated military takeovers.
    Musharraf has promised to cooperate with the new government. In a speech at an army academy Wednesday, he stressed the importance of economic growth and urged Pakistanis to ‘‘join hands together to eliminate the scourge of extremism,’’ a military statement said.
    But Javed Hashmi, a lieutenant of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government was ousted in the 1999 coup that put Musharraf in power, indicated the president can expect a rough ride.
    He said parliament, where Sharif’s party has allied with Bhutto’s, will not rubber stamp the acts of a ‘‘dictator’’ — a reference to Musharraf’s declaration of emergency rule in November to safeguard from legal challenge his re-election as president by the previous legislature.
    ‘‘We have to bury the dictatorship,’’ Hashmi said. He also demanded that the military budget be presented before the National Assembly for unprecedented scrutiny.
    Some of Musharraf’s foes in parliament want to impeach him or restore Supreme Court judges he ousted. But some analysts warn that the president could team up with the current judges to resist and tumble the country into a fresh political crisis.
    Bhutto’s party, now led by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, must first decide who should be the prime minister.
    After his wife’s assassination, Zardari told reporters she wanted Makhdoom Amin Fahim, an aristocratic party stalwart, to be the party’s candidate.
    But there is speculation Zardari wants the job himself. He is ineligible now because he is not a member of parliament, but he could name a stand-in and run in a by-election within months.
    The battle for the leadership has strained party unity, and in an apparent effort to smooth over the row, the son of Bhutto and Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, flew into Pakistan on Wednesday.
    The party appointed him as chairman after his mother died, but his father is running things while the 19-year-old continues his studies at Oxford University.
    While Bilawal has little or no say in politics, it could be difficult for party loyalists to publicly criticize a declaration on the leadership made by Bhutto’s anointed heir.
    The People’s Party said Bilawal was visiting his mother’s grave Wednesday and would announce the party’s nomination for prime minister ‘‘at the right time.’’
    ———
    Associated Press writers Sadaqat Jan, Zarar Khan and Munir Ahmad contributed to this report.

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