Bhutto's party to name candidate for Pakistan premier

(dpa) - The party of slain former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was set Saturday to announce its candidate to be the next premier as the political allies of their rival President Pervez Musharraf withdrew their contender from the race.

Bilawal Bhutto, the 19-year-old son appointed titular chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), is taking time out from his studies at Britain's Oxford University to announce his party's candidate for premier in Pakistan.

"The announcement will be made between 2200 and 2100 local time (1500 and 1600 GMT) tonight, through a press release or possibly in a press conference," PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

The new prime minister is scheduled to be elected on March 24 by the lower house of parliament, which is mainly packed with Musharraf's rivals.

Bhutto's PPP has made a coalition with the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz of Nawaz Sharif, who like Bhutto is a former premier, and has a comfortable majority in parliament to elect its candidate.

But picking a suitable candidate from among several senior leaders has been a painstaking process for Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower who runs the party's day-to-day affairs.

The choice is further complicated because Zardari is believed to want to take over as prime minister once he is elected a member of parliament in one of the upcoming by-elections. He would want the candidate to serve as prime minister only until then.

The former speaker of the National Assembly and senior PPP leader Yousaf Raza Gilani was most likely to be named for the post.

Among the other candidates are Shah Mehmood Qureshi and party president Makhdoom Amin Fahim.

Musharraf's political backers, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), finished a distant third in the February 18 elections, leaving the ex-general struggling for his political survival.

The alliance seemed to be disintegrating on Saturday when the MQM formally announced that its Member of Parliament Farooq Sattar, the joint candidate for the premiership, was stepping out of the competition.

"We have taken the decision in the larger interests of the country and for national reconciliation," Sattar told reporters in Islamabad. "We will vote for the PPP candidate while staying in the opposition."

The other alliance partner, PML-Q, was considering whether they should find a new prime ministerial candidate or stay away from the race.

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