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Pakistan's Finance Minister Makes Progress in Quest to Become Next PM - 2004-08-19

Pakistan's finance minister has won an election, paving his way to become the country's next prime minister. The ruling party's choice to lead Parliament shows its new focus on economic issues.

Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz beat opponents in two by-elections, and the Parliament is expected to elect him as Pakistan's new prime minister next week.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League party picked Mr. Aziz for the top legislative job in late June, arranging for two of its members of parliament to step down so he could secure a seat of his own.

Muslim League Secretary-General Senator Mushahid Hussain says the veteran finance minister was chosen to give the party a strong voice on economic issues, which could play a key role in the next elections.

"Our assessment is that the next elections in 2007 would focus primarily on domestic issues, unlike the 2002 elections which had a strong foreign policy component because of Afghanistan and Iraq," he said.

Mr. Aziz was chosen to replace former Prime Minister Zafaullah Jamali, who had been denounced by some party leaders as generally inefficient and incompetent.

But political commentator Ayaz Amir says Mr. Aziz was chosen only because he could better promote the agenda of President Pervez Musharraf, who he says holds all the real power in Pakistan.

"It's got nothing to do with democracy, or power being located in Parliament. Its just (about) having a man who does your bidding, smoothly, efficiently," he said.

Mr. Aziz's political campaign for the by-election was marked by a failed suicide assassination attempt made against him last month.

Mr. Amir notes that this attack, which took place following a public rally, resulted in a limited campaign by Mr. Aziz.

"He just made one or two appearances in his constituency and then he was confined to Islamabad," he said.

A group calling itself the Islambouli Brigade and identifying itself as part of the al-Qaida network, claimed responsibility for the attack.

In recent weeks, Pakistani authorities have been conducting a series of arrests of alleged al-Qaida operatives throughout the country.

Pakistan has announced rewards totaling $1.1 million for information leading to the capture of six top al-Qaida suspects. These include Libyan Abu Faraj al-Libbi, alleged to be the head of al-Qaida's international operations and the mastermind of two failed assassination bids against President Musharraf.