ISLAMABAD (AFP) — Pakistan lawmakers started voting Saturday in a presidential election that slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari is widely expected to win.
Zardari is the clear favourite in a three-way race to take power in the frontline state in the US-led "war on terror," a country riven by Islamic militancy and economic turmoil.
Security was tight as secret voting began shortly after 10:00 am (0400 GMT) in the two chambers of parliament and four provincial assemblies.
Zardari himself has already moved house due to fears of attempts being made on his life, nine months after Bhutto was killed at a campaign rally.
Tensions rose further this week after a failed assassination attempt on Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, whose car was hit by sniper fire as it drove to meet him at an airport on Wednesday.
Nearly 1,200 people have been killed in bombings and suicide attacks across Pakistan in the past year, in unrest seen as a backlash by militants angry at former president Pervez Musharraf's support for the United States.
Musharraf's August 18 resignation in the face of impeachment charges triggered the election.
Zardari , 53, will face a multitude of other problems if he defeats his two opponents, retired chief justice Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, who is backed by former premier Nawaz Sharif, and Mushahid Hussain, a close aide of Musharraf.
The economy is backsliding with inflation rampant and a volatile political situation contributing to a 40 percent fall on the stock market since January, in a country already reliant on foreign aid.
Zardari's aides were Saturday confident of victory in the ballot.
"We have a clear majority and our candidate will bag the maximum votes," said Pakistan People's Party (PPP) president Makhdoom Amin Fahim.
Sharif, meanwhile, was engaged in last ditch lobbying.
"He told a parliamentary meeting of lawmakers that they should vote for Siddiqui," Sharif's spokesman Siddiqul Farooq told AFP.
Lawmakers in the northwestern city of Peshawar, meanwhile, fled the building where they were voting after a 5.6 magnitude earthquake hit parts of Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan.
They returned shortly afterwards, however, after realising that the quake was moderate.
The election comes amid mounting international concern about the stability of Pakistan which under Musharraf backed the United States after the September 11 attacks in 2001, and in its subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.
Billions of dollars of aid flowed to Islamabad in return.
However, the American military contends that Pakistan's tribal areas have become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants to use as a launch pad for attacks on international soldiers based across the Afghan border.
The United States restated Pakistan's strategic importance late Friday.
"We'll continue to work with them, we need to have their cooperation," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said when asked about bilateral relations in the likelihood of a Zardari victory.
"One of the reasons that Zardari will become the president is because unfortunately his wife was killed by terrorists, so they have a mutual interest in trying to go after terrorists," Perino told reporters.
As co-chairman of the PPP, Zardari already heads a fragile coalition government which, although still in office, recently lost the backing of Sharif's party.
If Bhutto's widower wins on Saturday, he will gain wide powers including to dismiss governments and appoint leaders of the military that has ruled Pakistan for half of its 61-year existence.
Polling will close at 3:00 pm with unofficial results announced in the parliament soon after voting ends. The official verdict will come later in the evening.
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