Sharif ally likely to be new Pakistan president

Pakistan will choose a new president next week, with a candidate supported by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party likely to ascend to the ceremonial office.

Indications are that incumbent President Asif Ali Zardari, who faces a rival government in power and a hostile judiciary as he leaves office, may opt to go into exile.

Mr Mamnoon Hussain, 73, hand-picked by Mr Sharif, is set to win the July 30 presidential election. Mr Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, and its allies enjoy a comfortable majority in the national and provincial legislatures that elect the president.

Mr Hussain, an India-born businessman from Karachi, is a close Sharif aide. He was the governor of the Sindh province in 1999 when Mr Sharif's government was ousted in a bloodless coup led by the then military chief, General Pervez Musharraf.

Running against Mr Hussain are former law minister Raza Rabbani, the nominee of Mr Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and retired judge Wajihuddin Ahmed from Tehreek-e-Insaaf party led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.

Pakistan's Election Commission had initially fixed Aug 6 as the date for the election, a month before Mr Zardari's tenure expired.

But the Supreme Court on Wednesday accepted Mr Sharif's request that the polling be held on July 30 as many MPs would be busy with Ramadan rituals.

The president is the titular head of state in Pakistan, but the election of a loyalist would consolidate Mr Sharif's grip on power. His party swept parliamentary elections in May by inflicting a crushing defeat on the PPP.

Mr Zardari, 58, is the first Pakistani president to have served a full five-year tenure, though it was marred by a confrontation with the increasingly assertive judiciary as well as a tug of war with the security establishment.

Analysts say Mr Zardari may land in political trouble once he leaves the office. "Zardari seems to be becoming political history, at least for now," said Mr Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Islamabad- based Centre for Research and Security Studies.

Mr Zardari is likely to face a raft of corruption cases at home and abroad at the expiry of his term in September. The previous government, led by his party, had long resisted Supreme Court pressure to reopen the corruption cases on the grounds that he enjoyed constitutional immunity.

Under pressure from the court, the previous government wrote a letter to Swiss authorities to reopen a money laundering case against Mr Zardari dating back to the 1990s when his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was in power.

But the Swiss authorities refused to reopen the case, saying it was "time barred".

However, the cases Mr Zardari faces at home can still be reopened.

Mr Gul suggested that Mr Zardari, who has been on a private visit to Dubai for more than a week, might go into exile to avoid prosecution.

"He will be happy if he is given a safe passage and he may be given this by the establishment."

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