ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani lawmakers began voting for the country's new president Tuesday in an election that has been marred by controversy over procedure and concern about overreach by the country's powerful judiciary, although there is widespread agreement that the ruling party's candidate will likely win.
The vote followed a late night attack by dozens of Taliban militants on a prison in northwest Pakistan, illustrating one of the major challenges the new president will face. The militants freed more than 250 prisoners, including 25 "dangerous terrorists," and killed over a dozen people, including guards and Shiite Muslim prisoners, officials said.
The expected victor in the election is Mamnoon Hussain, a textile businessman who has been a longtime member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N party and briefly served as the governor of southern Sindh province in 1999.
Pakistan's largely ceremonial president is not elected by popular vote, but by lawmakers in the Senate, National Assembly and the assemblies of the four provinces. The PML-N has a very strong position because it won majorities in the National Assembly and the assembly of Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab, in June, all but assuring that Hussain will win the vote.
"The election is more or less a settled issue," said Pakistani political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi. "There is no excitement in it because it has become a one-sided affair, and the powers of the president are very limited and nominal."
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will remain the most powerful figure in the civilian government in Pakistan, a key ally for the United States in battling Islamic militants and negotiating an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Controversy broke out last week when the Supreme Court agreed to a request by the PML-N to move forward the election — originally scheduled for August 6 — because some lawmakers wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage during the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The country's former ruling party, the Pakistan People's Party, which has the second highest number of seats in the National Assembly, announced that it would boycott the presidential election in response to the court's ruling. The PPP complained that the judges ruled without hearing from the opposition, and the new election date didn't give the party enough time to campaign.
The court's decision sparked criticism from outside the party as well from observers who have long warned about the Supreme Court's tendency to overreach. They argued that the decision about the election date should have been left to the country's election commission, which originally scheduled the vote for August 6.
The party's decision to boycott could affect the perceived legitimacy of the election, although Hussain was still expected to win even if the PPP fielded a candidate. The only other person running in the election is Wajihuddin Ahmed, a retired Sindh High Court judge nominated by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, led by former cricket star Imran Khan.
Hussain was born to an industrialist family in 1940 in the Indian city of Agra. His family settled in Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, after Pakistan was carved out of British India in 1947, and set up a textile business there. Hussain served as governor of Sindh for about four months in 1999, but otherwise has not been a prominent figure in national politics.
If elected, Hussain will replace the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, whose five-year term ends on Sept. 8. Zardari rose to power after his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was killed in a gun and bomb attack in Dec. 2007.
Zardari has been a contentious figure as president and has often battled with both the powerful army and the Supreme Court.
His biggest accomplishment is widely seen as guiding Pakistan's first civilian government to finish its full five-year term and transfer power in democratic elections in a country plagued by military coups. He did this by building and maintaining the coalitions needed to keep power. He also agreed to a constitutional amendment that transferred many of the president's powers to the prime minister, leaving his position as largely ceremonial.
But Zardari's government is widely perceived to have done little to address the major problems facing the country, especially the pervasive electricity shortages that crippled Pakistan's economy and left some people without power for up to 20 hours per day.
"Zardari will be remembered as a quite a controversial president, but a major survivor," said Rizvi.
The army launched major operations against the Pakistani Taliban during Zardari's tenure, but the group has proven resilient and continues to stage frequent attacks against security personnel and civilians.
The attack on the prison late Monday night occurred in the town of Dera Ismail Khan, which is located near Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal region, the main sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaida militants in the country.
The militants killed six policemen, six Shiite Muslim prisoners and two civilians during the attack, said Dera Ismail Khan's commissioner, Mushtaq Jadoon. One of the Shiites was beheaded. Many hard-line Pakistani militants consider the country's Shiite minority to be heretics.
The attack began around 11:30 p.m. on Monday night when dozens of militants — the Taliban put the number at 150 — arrived at the jail in vehicles and motorcycles. They detonated dozens of bombs to collapse the prison's walls and then streamed inside — some of them disguised as policemen, said intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. The militants, who chanted "God is great" and "Long live the Taliban," also fired rocket-propelled grenades and lobbed hand grenades during the attack.
The attackers used megaphones to call out the names of specific prisoners for whom they were looking. They broke open cells and freed 253 prisoners, including 25 "dangerous terrorists," said Jadoon. The militants finally ended the raid around 4 a.m. Authorities have declared a curfew in the area and are searching for both the militants and the escaped prisoners.
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Rasool Dawar in Peshawar contributed to this report.