Pakistan's Parliament Elects First Female Speaker



Pakistan has seen its first significant transfer of power since last month's nationwide elections. The speaker of the National Assembly, a backer of President Pervez Musharraf, handed over control of the legislative body to a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party of the slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Islamabad that no progress has been made towards selecting the country's next prime minister.

As expected, Pakistan's parliament has selected its first female speaker.

"Dr. Fehmida Mirza has received 249 votes," incumbent Chaudhry Amir Hussain, a supporter of President Pervez Musharraf, announced the vote total in the 342-seat National Assembly.

Parliament members then pounded their open hands on their desks for 30 seconds to applaud Fehmida Mirza of the Pakistan Peoples Party. The 51-year-old medical doctor and mother of four children is a third-generation Pakistani politician. Her father twice served in the cabinet; her husband was a member of parliament; and her father-in-law was a Supreme Court justice.

Mirza's manner of speech and dress evoke images of Benazir Bhutto, the head of the PPP, who was assassinated on the campaign trail less than three months ago.

Mirza will be tasked with controlling a legislature where two traditional rivals, Mrs. Bhutto's party and the Muslim League faction of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, have agreed to share power. She acknowledges it may not be an ideal setup for governing Pakistan, but says it can work.

"Nowhere in the world you get the ideal situation," said Mirza. "Even in our neighborhood, India, there are coalition governments. So you should know and this country should learn how to move with the coalitions. There is nothing unusual having coalitions in the country."

But who will head that coalition government remains the big unanswered question. Under the power-sharing agreement, the PPP's candidate will be supported by its coalition partner. The two parties have enough seats in the new parliament to elect the candidate they will support.

Despite mounting concern that no name has been revealed, a month after the national elections, PPP spokeswoman Sherry Rehman is echoing comments of other party officials who are repeating the mantra of "no hurry, no worry."

"There is no delay," said Rehman. "The media has to understand that political parties work on their schedules, not on anyone else's."

Pakistani media say Mrs. Bhutto's widower, party Co-Chair Asif Zardari, has decided he wants to be prime minister, despite repeated early protestations he was not interested. Until Zardari, recently cleared of a slew of corruption charges, can secure a seat in parliament -- a pre-requisite for the top government post -- the party is expected to announce an interim candidate, later in the month.

The political uncertainty comes as Pakistan tries to move back to democracy. Some influential members of parliament want to impeach unpopular President Musharraf. The former army chief seized control of Pakistan in a military coup in 1999. Mr. Musharraf allowed free elections to take place last month, in which the party backing him was trounced.

Legislators and the president are also on a collision course about the judiciary. During a state of emergency, last November, Mr. Musharraf removed the top layer of the country's judges, replacing them with justices seen as more compliant to the president. Under the power-sharing accord, the two top parties in the February election have vowed to have the fired judges reinstated within 30 days.

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