ISLAMABAD (AFP) — The party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto delayed nominating Pakistan's next prime minister on Thursday, casting the nuclear-armed nation deeper into political limbo after elections.
The Pakistan People's Party, which won the most seats in the February 18 parliamentary polls, failed to agree on a candidate because of discord over the frontrunner Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a stalwart Bhutto aide, party officials said.
The delay comes amid mounting uncertainty over how the new premier and his or her government will handle key US ally President Pervez Musharraf, whose allies were trounced by the PPP and the party of ex-premier Nawaz Sharif.
"It is up to the party leadership what decision they take," Fahim told reporters, flashing a victory sign as he left the meeting of the PPP's newly elected MPs in Islamabad.
Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on December 27 and her widower and successor as party leader, Asif Ali Zardari, has said he is not standing for the premiership.
Party insiders said the dispute hinged on the fact that Fahim, the PPP's long-term vice-president, hails from the southern province of Sindh, the Bhutto clan's power base.
Some party leaders wanted a prime minister from Punjab province, which is home to more than half of the country's 160 million people and where Sharif's party outnumbered the PPP in provincial polls.
Sharif and Zardari have agreed to form a coalition in parliament, which is set to be convened in mid-March, but both parties will inevitably want to maintain their own strength, officials said.
The leading Punjabi contender is Ahmed Mukhtar, an industrialist who is close to Zardari and who defeated the chief of the pro-Musharraf party in the elections, party officials said.
However, insiders said it would be a tough decision to pass over Fahim, a poetry-loving 68-year-old who effectively led the party when Bhutto was in exile from 1999 to 2007.
Party officials said a decision may not be announced until parliament convenes.
The delay in choosing a premier comes amid general uncertainty about the political direction of the country and the fate of Musharraf in particular.
Pakistan's powerful army chief Ashfaq Kayani rejected suggestions of any rift between the military and the embattled Musharraf, and insisted the armed forces would stay out of politics.
"He pointed out that any kind of schism, at any level, under the circumstances would not be in the larger interest of the nation," the military said in a statement.
"He reiterated that the army would stay out of the political process and expressed his hope that the army would not be dragged into any unnecessary controversy."
With Washington and other allies pressing for stability in Pakistan, the PPP-led coalition has not yet indicated whether it is ready for a full showdown with Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999.
The coalition needs only to bring on board a few more independent MPs to secure the two-thirds majority with which it could theoretically launch impeachment proceedings against Musharraf.
Sharif, the man ousted by Musharraf nearly nine years ago, and his Pakistan Muslim League-N party, have been outspoken in their calls for him to quit.
But the PPP's Fahim told CNN last month that there were no immediate plans for Musharraf's removal, saying that the new government should "not rock the boat at this time."
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged NATO countries Thursday to foster good relations with the new government in Pakistan and to encourage its ties with Afghanistan.
But a firebrand anti-Musharraf lawyer and former minister in one of Bhutto's governments during the 1990s urged the United States and Britain to abandon their support for the Pakistani president.
"He is no longer the army chief, he has been rejected by his own people, he is the most unpopular and hated person," Aitzaz Ahsan told around 500 lawyers in Rawalpindi.
Separately five suspected militants accused of involvement in Bhutto's murder were remanded in custody by an anti-terrorist court in Rawalpindi.
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