Pakistan lawmakers elect new PM

Agence France-Presse
Raja Pervez Ashraf is Pakistan's new prime minister

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – MPs elected Raja Pervez Ashraf as Pakistan’s new prime minister Friday, June 22, in a bid to end a crisis sparked by judges ousting the premier and demanding the arrest of his would-be successor.

The national assembly rubber stamped Ashraf’s appointment by 211 votes in the 342-member lower house of parliament, dominated by the main ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and its fractious coalition members.

“Raja Pervez Ashraf is declared to be elected as prime minister of the Islamic republic of Pakistan,” speaker Fehmida Mirza announced.

President Asif Ali Zardari will now hope that Ashraf can form a cabinet able to see through the government’s five-year term in office, due to expire in February 2013, without the need for early elections.

But Ashraf is a controversial choice. Currently fighting a corruption case from his tenure as water and power minister, he has also been blamed for much of the government’s inability to resolve a disastrous energy crisis.

The change in premier is likely to ease little of Pakistan’s myriad problems, not least appalling power cuts that enrage millions or a stalemate in US relations that have led to a seven-month blockade on NATO supplies into Afghanistan.

Ashraf will also come under immediate pressure from the Supreme Court to write to Swiss authorities, asking them to reopen investigations into Zardari.

Corruption

The Pakistan People’s Party government, dogged by corruption allegations, has been locked in a stand-off with the judiciary for years, accused of working behind the scenes with the military and the political opposition.

Its culmination came on Tuesday when the Supreme Court unceremoniously evicted Yousuf Raza Gilani from the prime minister’s office after convicting him of contempt for refusing to reopen Swiss corruption cases against Zardari.

Two days later an anti-narcotics court ordered the arrest of Makhdoom Shahabuddin, Zardari’s nomination to replace Gilani, over a drugs scandal.

The PPP dropped Shahabuddin. Analysts suggested the arrest warrant had been engineered by the military, the chief arbiter of power.

Ashraf has promised to make the power crisis his priority despite being widely criticised for incompetency when power minister from March 2008 to February 2011.

“I hope soon we will find a solution,” he told reporters Friday.

But the question now remains when the next general election will be held.

“If we have committed some mistakes or did not fulfill our manifesto, then the decision should be left to the people of Pakistan,” senior PPP official Syed Khurshid Shah conceded.

Some analysts had expected the party to favour information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira as the next prime minister, as he is considered to have more political clout and a clean record.

Shahabuddin said the arrest warrant against him was “a conspiracy” to embarrass Zardari.

A court in the northwestern city of Peshawar granted him interim-bail that would protect him from being detained for seven days, his lawyer Shahnawaz Khan told AFP.

The arrest warrant was issued on Thursday by an anti-narcotics court over his alleged involvement in the illegal import of a controlled drug in 2010 when he was health minister.

Analysts said it signalled that the powerful military were unprepared to back Shahabuddin.

A warrant was also issued for Ali Musa Gilani, son of the outgoing premier.

The PPP won elections in 2008 ending nearly a decade of military rule and stands to become the first elected administration in Pakistan’s history to complete its term in office and hand over to another elected government.

Gilani’s disqualification was the culmination of a showdown between the judiciary, led by a popular chief justice and a weak ineffective government, that critics say has been politicised at best, or vendetta-driven at worst.

The cases against Zardari date to the 1990s, when he and Bhutto are suspected of using Swiss banks to launder $12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs contracts.

The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became president. – Agence France-Presse