x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Pakistan has new PM, but same old problems

The latest turmoil was triggered when the Supreme Court disqualified former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for refusing to initiate a corruption investigation against his boss.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistani lawmakers elected a ruling party loyalist as the new prime minister yesterday, even though he has been accused of corruption and criticised for failing to solve the country's energy crisis - setting in motion what is likely to be a short and turbulent premiership. The election of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf is unlikely to reduce tensions among Pakistan's jostling power centres, an increasingly nasty political battle that is destabilising an already chaotic country. The latest round of turmoil was triggered earlier this week when judges at the activist Supreme Court disqualified former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for refusing to initiate a corruption investigation against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari.

The opposition and some media contend that Mr Ashraf is corrupt. He also has been criticised for failing to fix a chronic energy shortage when he was minister of water and power in the Yusuf Raza Gilani government.

The election of Mr Ashraf, a politician who has served in several ministerial roles, came after the court on Monday declared Mr Gilani ineligible because it defied its order.

Mr Zardari, who is also the head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), picked Makhdoom Shahabuddin, the former textiles and health minister, to succeed Mr Gilani. But the president was forced to drop Mr Shahabuddin after a court issued warrants for his arrest for allowing the export of the stimulant ephedrine beyond sanctioned quotas when he was the health minister under Mr Gilani.

Mr Ashraf easily won the one-on-one contest with a candidate from the main opposition party, as the PPP and its allies hold a comfortable majority in the parliament.

"The victory of Raja Pervez Ashraf shows people have trust in democracy," Mr Zardari said in his message to Mr Ashraf shortly after his election.

Television networks yesterday repeatedly aired file footage of Mr Asharf promising that power cuts would be ended in the country by the end of 2009. They did not.

In recent days, Pakistanis have protested against prolonged power cuts, which can last up to 20 hours and have crippled industries.

Dubbed "Raja Rental" by the media, Mr Ashraf is accused of receiving kickbacks while awarding rental power projects during his tenure, charges Mr Ashraf denies.

Analysts say Mr Ashraf, who also served as minister for information technology, may come under renewed pressure from the judiciary, led by the maverick chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, to reopen corruption cases against Mr Zardari.

The cases date to the 1990s when Mr Zardari and his wife, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, were alleged to have laundered money using Swiss bank accounts. The Supreme Court has insisted that the government writes a letter to Swiss authorities asking to reopen one such case after the court struck down a law granting amnesty to Mr Zardari and thousands of political workers from criminal charges.

Mr Gilani refused to obey, citing constitutional immunity for the president, which ultimately led to his downfall.

Mr Zardari has hinted that Mr Gilani's successor would follow the same path.

"We will not allow trial of the grave of shaheed [martyred] Benazir Bhutto," several newspapers quoted him as telling his party legislators this week.

Analysts say the timing of the warrants for Mr Shahabuddin by a court on the request of the military-led anti-narcotics agency attests to strains in relations between the weak ruling coalition and the powerful military.

"These warrants would not have been issued without the blessings of the army," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, an independent political analyst.

Leaders of the PPP privately expressed fears that the judiciary and military are collaborating to oust the government.

"I don't think this government is going to survive more than few months. I don't think the judiciary and military will let them work," said Mr Rizvi.

General elections are due in Pakistan in 2013 but may be called early, possibly in October, as the government comes under pressure from opposition leaders.

"The next prime minister will be the slave of Asif Zardari," Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician, told reporters in Karachi on Thursday. "Free and fair elections are the only solution to the present crisis."



with additional reporting by the Associated Press