Pakistani Lawmakers Elect First Woman Speaker of Parliament

Pakistan's new parliament elected the country's first female speaker Wednesday from the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Fehmida Mirza, a businesswoman and medical doctor elected to parliament three times, won 249 of the 324 votes cast in a ballot in the National Assembly, or lower house. Her only challenger got 70.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party came top in Feb. 18 elections and is preparing to lead a new coalition government united against U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf, whose supporters were routed in the polls.

Mirza's appointment was another manifestation of how the former army strongman is ceding control of this nuclear-armed country threatened by Islamic extremism to a new democratic government.

Still, her party has yet to resolve a potentially damaging wrangle over who should be the next prime minister.

The elevation of Mirza, 51, was a formality after Bhutto's party nominated her the day before.

As the result was read out, lawmakers slapped their desks loudly by way of applause. Mirza stood, smiled modestly and repeatedly touched her forehead in a gesture of thanks to her peers.

After walking to the front of the chamber, where lawmakers sit in half circles focused on the speaker's chair, she donned her black robe of office and took the oath from the outgoing speaker.