Pakistan elects Gilani as new prime minister

March 24, 2008 10:03:37 AM PDT
A longtime loyalist of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was elected Pakistan's new prime minister Monday and immediately freed judges detained by President Pervez Musharraf. The release of the judges was a powerful symbol of Musharraf's slipping authority since Bhutto's party swept parliamentary elections last month.

The newly elected prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, will form a new government dominated by Musharraf's foes, who have vowed to slash the U.S.-backed president's sweeping powers and review his counterterrorism policies.

Minutes after parliament elected Gilani, dozens of political activists and lawyers climbed over a wall surrounding the home of deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who had been under house arrest since November.

Chaudhry emerged onto a balcony smiling and thanked supporters in his first public appearance since his detention. Riot police stood by as the intruders rallied on the justice's front lawn.

The National Assembly voted 264-42 to elect Gilani, who told lawmakers he would demand the release of all judges detained under Musharraf. Soon afterwards, deputy Islamabad commissioner Amir Ahmed said Gilani's order had been implemented, Pakistan's state-run news agency reported.

After the vote, Gilani shook hands with Bhutto's son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who wiped tears from his face and smiled. His mother held the post of prime minister twice before being killed in a suicide attack in December.

Cheers of "Long live Bhutto, BB is still alive!" rang out through parliament. Fellow lawmakers embraced Gilani as he made his way to the prime minister's lectern.

"Democracy has been revived due to the sacrifice of Benazir Bhutto," said Gilani told lawmakers. "We didn't get here out of charity. This moment came because of continued struggle and martyrdom."

The new government has promised to reinstate Chaudhry and other senior judges within 30 days - a move that could trigger a power struggle with Musharraf, a former army chief who seized power in a 1999 coup. Some believe it could prompt him to resign.

"I have no words to thank you for the way you struggled for nearly five months for the enforcement of the rule of law and our constitution," Chaudhry said from his balcony.

Gilani, who will be sworn in Tuesday by Musharraf, said he first act as prime minister would be to seek a parliamentary resolution demanding a U.N. probe into Bhutto's assassination.

He will head an administration facing mounting economic problems, including double-digit inflation, power shortages and sagging foreign investment.

Followers of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, hold the second-largest number of seats in parliament.

Observers say Gilani's record and treatment at the hands of Musharraf make him a good pick to straddle the rivalry and ideological differences inside a coalition that includes Islamists and ethnic Pashtun nationalists, as well as the country's main center-left and center-right parties.

"Mr. Gilani is a man who suffered from Musharraf's martial law," said Ahsan Iqbal, a lawmaker for one of the four parties that agreed to form a new coalition government. "He understands well that getting rid of dictatorship is important."