Pakistan elects first female speaker

(AP) - Pakistan's new parliament elected the country's first female speaker Wednesday from the party of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Fehmida Mirza, a businesswoman and medical doctor elected to parliament three times, won 249 of the 324 votes in a ballot in the National Assembly, or lower house. Her only challenger received 70.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party came in on top in Feb. 18 elections and is preparing to lead a new coalition government united against U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf, whose supporters were routed in the polls.

Mirza's appointment was another manifestation of how the former army general is ceding control of the nuclear-armed country threatened by Islamic extremism to a new democratic government.

Still, her party has yet to resolve a potentially damaging wrangle over who should be the next prime minister. Bhutto's son and political heir flew to Pakistan on Wednesday to help resolve the matter.

The elevation of the 51-year-old Mirza, who bears a striking resemblance to Bhutto, was a formality; she was nominated by her party the day before.

As the result was read out, lawmakers slapped their desks loudly by way of applause. Mirza stood, smiled modestly and repeatedly touched her forehead in a gesture of thanks to her peers.

After walking to the front of the chamber, where lawmakers sit in half circles focused on the speaker's chair, she donned the black robe of office and took an oath from the outgoing speaker.

Her achievement is modest compared to that of her late party leader Bhutto, who blazed a trail for female politicians with her two terms as prime minister and long leadership of the party until her assassination on Dec. 27.

Bhutto's election in 1988 to the premiership made her the first woman to lead the government of a Muslim-majority country in the modern age. She was only 35 at the time.

Mirza, who has vowed to run parliament "like a home," got straight down to business on Wednesday, inviting Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, the new opposition leader, to speak first.

She later made her first intervention, ordering that private TV channels be allowed to broadcast the proceedings after journalists complained that staff had disconnected their cables.

Elahi, whose party is Musharraf's main political prop, pledged his "full cooperation" in the assembly.

However, he appeared to urge the incoming government to drop plans to strip Musharraf of some of his remaining powers, which include the right to fire parliament and the government.

"I hope that everyone has learned a lot and the clash of institutions to grab more powers will be avoided, and that institutions of state will continue to function within the sphere of their authority and move ahead," Elahi said.

He said the opposition would avoid the desk-thumping and pandemonium that in the past made Pakistan almost ungovernable and paved the way for repeated military takeovers.

However, Javed Hashmi, a leader of the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted when Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, indicated that the former army strongman could expect a rough ride.

He insisted parliament would not rubber-stamp the acts of a "dictator" - a reference to Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule in November to safeguard his disputed re-election as president from legal challenges.

"We have to bury the dictatorship, we have to bury it, we have to bury it," Hashmi repeated. He also demanded that the defense budget should be presented before the National Assembly for unprecedented scrutiny.

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