By Augustine Anthony
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The party of assassinated formerPakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, which is set to lead acoalition government, will announce its candidate for primeminister on Saturday, party officials said.
The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) which won the most seatsin a February 18 parliamentary election, is led by Bhutto'swidower, Asif Ali Zardari but he is ineligible to stand forprime minister as he is not a member of parliament.
"The consultation process within the party and with thecoalition partners on the nomination of the prime minister hasbeen completed," Raza Rabbani, a deputy secretary general ofthe party, told reporters.
"The chairman will announce the final decision later in theday," he said, referring to the son of Bhutto and Zardari,Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who has returned to Pakistan for ashort break from Britain where he is studying.
The 19-year-old was appointed chairman of the PPP after hismother's assassination on December 27 but has said he willcomplete his studies at Oxford University before enteringpolitics.
There is speculation the PPP will nominate a stop-gap primeminister, and Bhutto's widower will take over the post laterafter he gets into parliament by winning a by-election.
Another senior party official said the announcement was dueat about 9 p.m. (12:00 p.m. EDT).
President Pervez Musharraf has asked the National Assemblyto reconvene on Monday to elect the prime minister and thePPP's choice is all but guaranteed to win the vote.
Musharraf will swear in the prime minister on Tuesday andthe government is expected to be sworn in later in the week.
Musharraf has few allies left in the assembly after theirdefeat in last month's election.
The president, who came to power as a general in a 1999coup, appears increasingly isolated, and there is intensespeculation over how long the U.S. ally will be able to hold onto power.
The incoming government has pledged to pass a resolution toreinstate Supreme Court judges who Musharraf replaced inNovember out of fear that they could rule unconstitutional hisown re-election in October by the previous assembly.
Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a senior aide to Bhutto and Zardari'sdeputy, had been favourite to become prime minister.
But his prospects dimmed after the PPP's main coalitionpartner, the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif,objected to his contacts with Musharraf.
Other candidates include Yousaf Raza Gilani, Chaudhry AhmedMukhtar and Shah Mahmood Qureshi. They all hail from thecentral province of Punjab, whereas the PPP's stronghold is thesouthern province of Sindh.
Gilani, a PPP vice chairman, was National Assembly speakerfrom 1993 to 19997, during Bhutto's second term as primeminister. He later spent four years in prison on charges ofmaking illegal government appointments.
Mukhtar defeated Musharraf ally Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain,chief of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (PML), in theelection. Qureshi is president of the PPP in Punjab.
Three Pakistani television stations said Gilani would bethe nominee but party officials declined to comment.
The February 18 election saw the PPP emerge with the mostseats in the 342-member National Assembly but not enough torule alone. Sharif's party came second, dealing a crushingdefeat to the PML.
Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf deposed in 1999, andZardari signed an agreement this month to form a coalition witha small regional party and a religious party.
Like Zardari, Sharif did not stand in the election.
(For a Reuters blog about Pakistan please seehttp://blogs.reuters.com/pakistan)
(Writing by Robert Birsel)