Pakistan's parliament on Wednesday elected the first female speaker in the country's 60-year history, a loyalist from the party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Fahmida Mirza, 52, could play a crucial role in a looming showdown between a coalition government led by Bhutto's party and President Pervez Musharraf, whose political allies lost heavily in elections a month ago.
MPs pounded their desks in approval as the purple-veiled former medical doctor was announced the winner with 249 votes from the 342-seat lower house of parliament, or national assembly.
Mirza, a veteran politician from Bhutto's home province of Sindh, then took the oath as the first woman to hold the position in this Islamic nation of 160 million people.
"This is my third tenure in the national assembly and I believe it is time that we all work together to address the challenges facing the country," Mirza told reporters before the session.
"I am sure that we will be able to face these challenges with the support of parliamentarians, our people and Pakistani media."
Bhutto, the first female premier of an Islamic nation, was slain at an election rally on December 27. Her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) won the most seats in elections last month and is set to lead a coalition government.
A rival party supporting key US ally President Pervez Musharraf, which suffered a crushing defeat in the elections last month, put forth a candidate who won 70 votes.
The speaker conducts the business of the house, deciding which debates or motions are allowed, and will play a key role in a parliament that looks set for a bruising confrontation with Musharraf.
"This is a big test and I hope that with the honor that Allah has bestowed upon you, you will be able to live up to expectations," said Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, parliamentary leader of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party.
Musharraf, whose popularity has slumped amid rising Islamic militancy and economic problems, is desperate to find a political ally after his backers were trounced in the February 18 elections.
Meanwhile Bhutto's teenage son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari returned to Pakistan on Wednesday to announce her party's nomination for the post of prime minister, a party spokesman said.
The 19-year-old student at Britain's Oxford University was named Bhutto's heir apparent after she was killed. Until he completes his studies, his father Asif Ali Zardari has taken the PPP's reins.
Party insiders say the current front-runner for the position is Yousuf Raza Gilani, who was parliamentary speaker during Bhutto's government from 1993-1996.
They say the prime minister named by Bilawal may only hold the post for a few months until Zardari himself becomes eligible to become premier.