ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s National Assembly elected its first woman speaker on Wednesday, a member of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which won elections last month.
Fehmida Mirza, 51, a medical doctor from a political family from Sindh province, defeated a candidate from the main party that backs President Pervez Musharraf by 249 votes to 70.
“We are starting a new chapter,” Mirza told a news conference after presiding over her first assembly session.
She did not refer to a possible confrontation between a new coalition government and Musharraf but said Pakistan was engulfed with problems such as terrorism, and poor education and health.
“It is the need of the hour that all institutions work together, and all political parties and members of parliament should work to resolve the problems of the people,” she said.
Mirza’s husband is a former PPP member of parliament and a close friend of Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower who became co-chairman of her party after she was killed in a suicide attack on December 27.
The PPP won the most seats in the February 18 general election but not enough to rule alone. It has agreed to form a coalition with the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, which came second, and two smaller parties.
The former ruling party that backs the unpopular Musharraf came a poor third in the election that was regarded as a referendum on Musharraf’s rule.
Musharraf, an important U.S. ally in its campaign against terrorism, is now faced with the prospect of inviting the election winners to form a coalition that could try to drive him from power.
Mirza’s win gave an indication the winning parties can command a two-thirds majority in the two-chamber parliament needed to amend the constitution.
The new government might seek to undermine Musharraf with changes to the constitution depriving him of the power to dismiss a government.
Musharraf has dismissed opposition calls to resign but could face legal challenges to his October re-election as president.
The coalition partners have yet to form their government and the PPP has yet to nominate its candidate for prime minister.
Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a senior aide to Bhutto and Zardari’s deputy, had been favorite but his prospects dimmed after Sharif’s party objected to his contacts with Musharraf.
There have been growing calls from within the PPP for Zardari to take up the job. For now he is not eligible because he did not stand in the election and is not a National Assembly member.
Courts have recently cleared old corruption cases against Zardari who spent 11 years in prison on various charges but was never convicted.
The party said it would announce the name of its choice for prime minister when parliament is reconvened. Musharraf is expected to call the session for next week.
(Editing by Robert Birsel and Robert Woodward)
For a Reuters blog about Pakistan please see blogs.reuters.com/pakistan