August 26, 2008 5:00 pm

Pakistan campaign kicks off amid rift

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The campaign to elect a president of Pakistan to replace Pervez Musharraf formally began on Tuesday amid warnings of a widening political divide.

On Monday former prime minister Nawaz Sharif withdrew the support of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party from the coalition government led by the Pakistan People’s party. Analysts said Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former premier Benazir Bhutto and the main PPP contender, was likely to secure enough votes to become president.

Candidates including Mr Zardari submitted their nominations to the election commission on Tuesday, 10 days before the election due on September 6.

The PML-N nominated Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, a respected former chief justice of the Supreme Court. The Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid e Azam, a party of Musharraf loyalists, named Mushahid Hussain, a journalist turned politician.

The PML-N’s decision to oppose Mr Zardari came a day after it broke ranks with the PPP, citing Mr Zardari’s failure to live up to his promise to reinstate judges dismissed by Mr Musharraf.

The president is chosen by an electoral college comprising members of the upper and lower houses of the federal parliament and the four provincial legislatures, with a total membership of 1,168.

The 440 members of parliament have one vote each. The votes of the 728 members of the provincial assemblies are weighted so each province has equal strength.

A PPP leader said Mr Zardari expected to receive “between 400 to 500 votes, which gives him a very comfortable majority”.

Analysts said the new government must tackle Islamist militancy and effects of an economic slowdown.

“This break in the coalition has led us in to another round of instability. Mr Zardari has frittered away another chance of building a broad consensus,” said Ayaz Amir, a newspaper commentator and member of parliament for the PML-N.

Western diplomats said Mr Zardari’s top priority, if he won the election, must be to narrow the growing political divide.

“If he can become a healer after the elections, only then will he be able to oversee a period of relative political stability,” said one.

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