Slain former Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto's party on Saturday named ex-parliamentary speaker Yousuf Raza Gilani as its candidate to be the troubled country's new prime minister.
The 58-year-old Gilani, a close aide to Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari, spent five years in jail under the regime of President Pervez Musharraf on corruption charges stemming from his time as speaker.
Gilani was nominated more than a month after Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) emerged as the biggest party from general elections and agreed to form a coalition government with ex-premier Nawaz Sharif.
He is now a virtual shoo-in to be elected as prime minister when Pakistan's new parliament meets on Monday, ahead of a looming showdown between key US ally Musharraf and the hostile incoming administration.
"I have great pleasure in calling upon Yousuf Raza Gilani in the name of Shaheed (martyr) Benazir Bhutto to accept the heavy responsibility to lead the coalition government and the nation," said a statement by Zardari.
Gilani was the "consensus" candidate of the coalition, said the statement, read out to reporters in Islamabad by party spokesman Farhatullah Babar.
Gilani called for unity among Pakistan's "democratic" parties.
"We have to take all democratic forces along. I will be giving a policy statement and spelling out my priorities on the floor of the house," Gilani told AFP in a telephone interview shortly after he was nominated.
"I am thankful to my party leadership for putting their trust in me," Gilani said, adding that he missed the party's "great leader" Bhutto, who was assassinated on December 27.
Musharraf, whose political backers lost heavily in the elections after five years in power and whose own popularity has slumped, is set to swear in the new premier on Tuesday.
Spokesman Babar would not comment on reports that Gilani would be a stop-gap premier until Zardari -- who is not an MP -- becomes eligible to stand for the post by contesting a by-election in May.
The party struggled to settle on a candidate amid a power vacuum left by the charismatic Bhutto's slaying, with Gilani emerging only in the last week.
Gilani was speaker during her second term in power from 1993 to 1996 and a minister during her first term from 1988 to 1990.
He was jailed shortly after Musharraf seized power in a coup in 1999 on allegations that he abused his position as speaker, but the charges were wiped out in November under an amnesty deal that allowed Bhutto to return from exile.
Sharif said in Lahore that his Pakistan Muslim League-N party "will raise no objection on the PPP nominee," adding: "Musharraf should understand that the days of dictatorship are numbered."
A nominee of Musharraf's allies earlier quit the race for the premiership in a dramatic about-face, but the main party that supports the president said it would field another candidate against Gilani.
The Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)'s candidate, Farooq Sattar, told AFP he had decided to withdraw his candidacy as a "gesture of goodwill" and would give "unconditional support to the PPP nominee." The decision to withdraw was taken after Zardari held talks with MQM leader Altaf Hussain, who lives in exile in London, Sattar said.
But the chief of the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), which backs Musharraf, said it would nominate Sattar's replacement on Sunday.
Western governments are keenly observing the political scene in Pakistan amid concerns that instability will hurt the fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants behind a wave of recent violence.
The coalition government appears set for a confrontation with Musharraf after vowing to reinstate judges whom the president sacked during a state of emergency in November.
If restored, the judges could overturn Musharraf's re-election as president in a parliamentary vote in October and effectively rule his grip on power illegal.
A New York Times report that Zardari and Sharif intend to start negotiations with Islamic militants in the hope of ending a spate of bombings has caused further jitters in the West.