ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Lawmakers wearing lapel pins with pictures of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto vowed a new dawn for democracy Monday as Pakistan’s parliament convened for the first time since opponents of the president swept to victory in last month’s elections.
Legislative leaders promised to challenge U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf by slashing his powers and reviewing his counterterrorism policies.
But the president’s foes face challenges themselves, including dealing with high inflation and other economic troubles, grappling with increased Islamic militancy – and resolving the ticklish question of who should be prime minister.
Jubilant legislators took their seats in the National Assembly as an imam’s Quran recitation echoed through the hall. Female politicians – 74 of them – tightened their Muslim head scarves.
“No assembly has ever been given such a clear mandate,” said Javed Hashmi, a party lieutenant of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 military coup and sent into exile until last November.
In a televised ceremony, more than 300 lawmakers stood and simultaneously repeated the oath of office. Some were exultant, some solemn. Others pounded their desks with fists to laud colleagues marching up to sign the parliamentary roll.
Even Sen. Tariq Azim, a Musharraf loyalist, hailed the inauguration of parliament’s lower house as a “step toward political stability.”
But Musharraf stayed away from the session, where Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, the widower and political successor of Bhutto, savored the moment from the gallery for dignitaries since neither holds a legislative seat.
“This is the first step for democracy,” Zardari told reporters. “Democracy is the last step for dictatorship.”
This nuclear-armed nation of 160 million people has been under military rule for most of its 60-year history, including the past eight after Musharraf seized power following a series of civilian governments that were accused of corruption and incompetence in the 1990s.
Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party won the most seats in the Feb. 18 election, which delivered a resounding defeat to supporters of Musharraf. Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, finished second, and the two men agreed to form a broad governing coalition.