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Pakistan prepares for early presidential elections

A controversial court ruling has led two opposition parties to announce they would boycott Pakistan's upcoming presidential election. Experts say the new president will be too weak to carry forward Zardari's legacy.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's five-year term ends in September. According to the country's constitution, the parliament must elect a new president one month prior to the retirement of the incumbent president. Initially, the election date had been set for August 6th, but after the intervention of the Pakistani Supreme Court, the poll will now be held a week in advance on July 30th.

The ruling Muslim League party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which swept the May 11th parliamentary elections and now enjoys a clear majority in the lower house of parliament, had asked the court to change the voting date because August 6th was too close to the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. This in turn, would have led to a majority of parliamentarians who elect the president not attending the session.

Two parties to boycott election

The court ruling was heavily criticized by opposition parties, which claim that the move now paves the way for a Sharif's loyalist to become the new president.  As a result, two of them announced they would boycott the election. Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) said that the court had given precedence to the religious sentiment of a group of people over constitutional obligations.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaking at the Parliament, in Islamabad, Pakistan, 05 June 2013 (Photo: EPA/PID / HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)

An aide of PM Sharif is expected to win the poll

"We don't have enough time for electioneering," said Raza Rabbani, the party's presidential candidate. "We are boycotting the election." The Awami National Party, based in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said it would also join the boycott.

Analysts had hailed President Zardari's decision to nominate Raza Rabbani, a former senator considered by all political parties to be one of the most respected Pakistani politicians. Rabbani has been credited with spearheading significant constitutional reforms by taking both the former ruling and opposition party members on board. Rabbani is a liberal politician known for his unequivocal opposition to Islamist extremists and terrorists.

The candidates

Twenty-four candidates applied to stand in the vote. Analysts believe the boycott announcement will likely have little impact on the outcome of the election, since many expect the candidate nominated by the ruling party, to win.

The conservative Muslim League party nominated Mamnoon Hussain (main picture) as its presidential candidate. Hussain is an industrialist from the southern Sindh province. He has served as president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and was also the governor of Sindh in 1999. He is considered a close Sharif aide and extremely loyal to him.

Murtaza Solangi, a senior journalist and broadcaster in Pakistan, criticized Sharif's decision to nominate Hussain. "Sharif has nominated Hussain because he wants to see one of his loyalists in the president house."

But others say that Sharif has given preference to Hussain over other stronger politicians within the ranks of his party because he wants someone from Sindh province to be elected as president. Sharif hails from the central Punjab, which is considered to be the most politically powerful province of Pakistan. Most of his cabinet members are also from there. Experts say that by choosing Hussain, Sharif wanted to appease the people of Sindh, which is the PPP stronghold.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, which emerged as the third largest party in May 11 elections, has nominated Wajihuddin Ahmed, a retired senior judge of the Supreme Court.

Experts say that it would have been better for the nascent Pakistani democracy had all political parties chosen a candidate unanimously. They say that at least the opposition PPP and Tehreek-e-Insaf should have agreed on a common candidate.

Ceremonial significance

"The fact that the three major parties in parliament nominated their own candidates is proof that they want to test their power," Nazir Naji, a Lahore-based veteran journalist, told DW. Naji says that Hussain is likely to be the new president of Pakistan, but, unlike President Zardari, he will be basically powerless.

The president, once a key player in Pakistan politics, now holds only ceremonial significance after Zardari, in an unprecedented move pushed a constitutional amendment in 2010 that took away most of the office's powers.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari addresses the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly with a photo of Pakistan's late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto next to him at U.N. headquarters Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012 (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Zardari's anti-Taliban legacy has no heirs

Unlike his predecessor Pervez Musharraf - who made a number of amendments in the constitution to increase his powers as president - experts say  that Zardari will be remembered as a president who relinquished his powers and approved a number of progressive legislation pieces.

Zardari's legacy

President Zardari is also known for his tough stance against the Taliban and other Islamist extremists. Zardari has never hesitated to call the Islamist extremists his enemies. In fact, he says they are his "personal enemies," as the Taliban allegedly assassinated his wife Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 during a public rally in the northeastern city of Rawalpindi.

In his last speech to parliament, he urged the new government to carry forward his legacy. But experts say this won't be easy for his predecessor as he will lack Zardari's charisma and political will.

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