ISLAMABAD, March 19: The new National Assembly on Wednesday elected its first woman speaker and her deputy with more than two-thirds majority, giving the future ruling coalition full control of the lower house ahead of a looming parliamentary confrontation with President Pervez Musharraf.

The choice, by secret ballot, of Speaker Dr Fehmida Mirza and Deputy Speaker Faisal Karim Kundi, both from the Pakistan People’s Party, against joint opposition candidates in the assembly’s first vote two days after its inauguration was hailed by parliamentary group leaders as a historic event in a still incomplete transition from more than eight years of military-led rule to democracy.

Dr Mirza won by 249 to 70 votes of Sardar Israr Tareen of the previously ruling Pakistan Muslim League, and Mr Kundi polled 246 votes against 68 of Khushbakht Shujaat of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).

A candidate needed only a simple majority of the votes cast to win, but the votes polled by the two winners were more than two-thirds of the 342-seat house required for a constitutional amendment and more than total 228 of the PPP-led four-party coalition, indicating that most of 10 independents from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and some members of former ruling and present opposition alliance also voted for the coalition candidates.

Political sources said the vote could be a dreadful warning for President Musharraf about the future alignments in parliament while the new rulers were likely to turn their attention to what is now only a slender majority of his loyalists in the 100-seat Senate, with the aim of winning majority there to be able of pass any ordinary legislation or a two-thirds majority for a constitutional amendment.

A two-thirds majority of the total members of both the houses can impeach the president in a joint session called by the National Assembly speaker and two-thirds majorities in each house can amend the Constitution to clip the controversial presidential powers to sack a prime minister, dissolve the National Assembly and appoint provincial governors and armed forces’ chiefs.

However, the nearest challenge to a powerful but politically isolated president will be a pledge by the PPP and its main coalition partner, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, to get a resolution passed by the National Assembly within 30 days of their government to restore about 60 judges of superior courts who were sacked under the controversial Nov 3, 2007, emergency.

Power struggle

Wednesday’s historic election of the first woman as the country’s parliamentary speaker remained clouded by a bitter power struggle within the PPP over its choice of the next prime minister who too must come from the party under its power-sharing agreement with other winners of the Feb 18 general election.

Just after the voting ended in a packed National Assembly hall, the PPP added a new drama to the controversy by announcing that its boy chairman Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, rather than his father and effective leader as co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, would announce the party’s candidate for the post of prime minister.

PPP vice-chairman Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who is also president of the party’s electoral arm of PPP Parliamentarians, told reporters that he continued to be in the race for prime minister undeterred by speculation that the choice of the National Assembly speaker from his home province of Sindh and the deputy speaker from the NWFP could hit his chances in favour of any hopeful from the most populous Punjab province.

He dismissed the speculation by citing the pre-Musharraf government when both then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his hand-picked president Mohammad Rafiq Tarar were from the Punjab.

The speaker’s election was conducted by Chaudhry Amir Hussain as his last act as the PML speaker of the previous assembly whose term was marked by frequent opposition protests against a perceived partisan attitude and two failed opposition no-confidence moves.

One majority coalition figure, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, failed to vote in the election for the new speaker and arrived in the house just before the result was announced.

It was not immediately known whether the Maulana’s absence, as of at least three other members, was a coincidence or a deliberate avoidance of voting for a woman due to any religious reservations as he did cast his vote in the election for deputy speaker although the coalition candidate was the man who defeated the MMA leader on Feb 18 in his home constituency in Dera Ismail Khan.

Responding to welcoming speeches of party and group leaders in the house, Dr Mirza told a news conference afterwards that she would treat members from treasury and opposition benches equally in conducting business of the house in accordance with the Constitution and rules of the business. She said considerations of party affiliation had ended with her election as speaker.