Page last updated at 16:33 GMT, Thursday, 4 September 2008 17:33 UK

Q&A: Pakistan presidential poll

Asif Zardari beside a picture of his former wife Benazir Bhutto
Asif Zardari is favourite to be the next president of Pakistan

Pakistani legislators on Saturday elect a successor to Pervez Musharraf, who stepped down on 18 August after nine years in power amid growing calls for his impeachment.

Q: What is the background?

Mr Musharraf's resignation has prompted concerns over the future political stability of Pakistan, triggered by uncertainty over whether his successor would continue to support the country's key role in the US-led "war on terror".

Q: How does the electoral system work?

The president is elected by an electoral college which consists of members of both houses of parliament and of the four provincial assemblies.

Candidates must be Muslims, aged 45 or younger. For a candidate to win, he or she must get a simple majority of the total votes cast.

There are 702 votes at stake. The lower house (National Assembly) has 342 votes, the upper house (Senate) has 100, while the four provincial assemblies have 65 each.

Although each of the four provincial assemblies has a total of 65 votes, only one of them, Balochistan, actually has 65 deputies. This is so that each provincial assembly has an equal say in the election.

This formula has been devised to offset the dominance of the majority-population provinces. So every provincial assembly member's vote will be multiplied by 65 and then divided by the number of members in the provincial assembly he or she belongs to, to get the weighted value of the vote.

Q: Who are the main candidates?

All three main political parties have fielded candidates. Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is seen as the front-runner. His Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and its allies have the greatest numbers in the electoral college.

Retired Supreme Court judge Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui is the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) candidate. The PML-N is the second largest party in the National Assembly with 91 members. It is also the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Mushahid Hussain Syed is running for the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-i-Azam) (PML-Q), the party which supported former president Pervez Musharraf after he overthrew Nawaz Sharif as prime minister in 1999. The PML-Q candidate will be banking on the support of its 38 members in the Senate, where it is the largest party. The PML-Q also has 54 seats in the National Assembly.

Q: Why does Mr Zardari have the edge?

The PPP is the largest party in the National Assembly with 124 seats. It is also the largest party in the Sindh provincial assembly, and the second largest party in the other three provincial assemblies of Punjab, Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province.

In addition, Mr Zardari has been promised support from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Awami National Party (ANP), the Jamiat-i-Ulema Islami of Maulana Fazlur Rahman (JUI-F) and the PPP (Sherpao) faction. Mr Zardari is also expected to get the backing of some independent voters in the electoral college.

Between them, these supporters are expected to pass the 352-vote mark in the electoral college required to win the presidential poll.

Q: What are the main issues?

• Terrorism and ties with the West

All candidates have condemned terrorism and the PPP has vowed to eliminate it. The PPP leader is said to have close contacts with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy to the UN. He is seen as the West's best bet to tackle growing "Talebanisation" in Pakistan, especially in the tribal areas near the Afghan border. Mr Zardari's party has kept negotiation doors with militant groups open in order for them to surrender or give up arms.

The PML-N wants an end to all military operations in the country.

• The economy

The economic situation in Pakistan has deteriorated in recent weeks, with inflation reaching its highest level in 30 years, the trade deficit widening and reserves falling. The government has been unable to lift investor confidence. The rupee has shed around a quarter of its value this year, while the effects of fuel and food price rises are affecting growing numbers of people.

• The army

The military has dominated Pakistani politics directly or indirectly since the mid-1950s. Concerns have also been raised over whether Mr Zardari would have enough authority over the army and the intelligence agencies.

The PML-N candidate blames the army operation in the tribal areas for the rising incidents of suicide attacks in the country. He has said the attackers are often reacting to military operations against them.

It is expected that the PML-Q candidate is likely to follow policies similar to the Musharraf administration in relation to the army.

• Presidential powers

The present constitution confers vast powers on the president, including the power to appoint services chiefs, the head of the election commission and the head of the public service commission.

But the most controversial prerogative - known as Article 58 (2) b - is the power to dismiss all or any of the central or provincial governments and parliaments.

Mr Zardari has indicated he will do away with this power if elected. The next president will continue to have these powers until the parliament votes them out by a two-thirds majority.

• Sacked judges

In recent weeks, some members of the PML-Q have expressed their disapproval of the sacking of judges last year by Mr Musharraf but they say they had to support their government's decision.

The PML-N on the other hand has strongly opposed the move and used the restoration of judges as its main slogan during the February elections.

The PPP, although committed to their reappointment, is thought to believe that some of them, including deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, should not be restored to their former positions.

Source: BBC Monitoring research in English 02 Sep 08

BBC Monitoringselects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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