Pakistan parliament elects new prime minister
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, a longtime ally of President Asif Ali Zardari, who faces corruption allegations, was chosen by parliament Friday as Pakistan's prime minister, taking over a government locked in a bitter war with a hostile judiciary and struggling with a tide of daunting economic and security challenges.
Ashraf replaces former Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani, who was forced to leave office this week by the Supreme Court as a result of his conviction in April on contempt charges. Ashraf wasn't Zardari’s first choice to replace Gilani; an arrest warrant issued this week by an anti-narcotics court sidelined a previous nominee, outgoing textiles minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin.
Zardari's Pakistan People's Party, together with its coalition of allied parties, easily had the votes in parliament needed to ensure Ashraf's appointment. Khursheed Shah, a senior PPP leader, said his party's ultimate aim was to avoid further confrontation with the Supreme Court, for the sake of the country's stability.
The actions against Gilani and Shahabuddin have underscored the deep animosity that taints the relationship between Zardari's government and the judiciary, led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Some commentators in Pakistan have characterized Chaudhry's removal of Gilani as a "judicial coup" aimed at exacting political damage on Zardari.
"We have never wanted confrontation between institutions," Shah said at a news conference Friday. "Our leadership and Yusaf Raza Gilani have accepted every decision from the judiciary in the interests of the country and democracy."
Nevertheless, the just-installed prime minister may give Pakistan's judiciary new ammunition. Ashraf, 61, is also dogged by allegations of corruption stemming from his tenure as water and power minister between March 2008 and February 2011.
In March, the Supreme Court directed Pakistan's National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption agency, to investigate Ashraf's role in the issuance of licenses to "rental power plants," a short-term project that was supposed to help solve the country's crippling power shortages. The effort did little to alleviate those troubles and instead wasted millions of dollars in government funds. The fiasco earned Ashraf the nickname "Raja Rental" in the media.
The high court nullified all rental power plant contracts and said individuals responsible for the effort "are liable to be dealt with for civil and criminal action in accordance with the law." Ashraf has denied any wrongdoing.
Ashraf's election came just hours after an anti-narcotics court issued an arrest warrant for Shahabuddin. The warrant, in connection with a drug scandal investigation, forced the outgoing textiles minister to withdraw his name.
Ashraf's tenure in office isn't expected to last long. National elections originally slated for early 2013 could be held as early as this fall. At his news conference, Shah said, "This is the year of elections."
Analysts said the Supreme Court could try to oust Ashraf sooner, possibly using his role in the rental power plant scheme as an excuse.
"The Supreme Court and the military have both turned against this PPP government," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political analyst. "So, with these two institutions against the government, and the government performing so poorly, I don't think it can last."
Experts predict that the bad blood between the judiciary and Zardari's government will only worsen in coming months. Chaudhry isn't expected to set aside his demand that the government press Switzerland to reopen graft proceedings against Zardari involving alleged kickbacks paid to Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The couple were convicted in absentia by Swiss courts in 2003, but the case was later set aside at Pakistan's request.
Gilani repeatedly had balked at Chaudhry’s request, arguing that as president Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution.
The political turmoil that is expected to overshadow Pakistan in coming months is also likely to prevent Zardari's government from tackling the country's most pressing problems, including crippling debt and power outages that leave families and companies without power for 12 hours or more a day.
Experts also expect that the ongoing stalemate in U.S.-Pakistan relations won't be solved anytime soon, especially as the PPP gears up for contentious elections in a country that deeply mistrusts Washington.
The relationship has been largely on hold since last November, when U.S. military helicopters mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border. Islamabad retaliated by barring NATO from using Pakistan as a transit country for supply convoys bound for Afghanistan, and has said it will not reopen those supply routes until Washington apologizes for the attack.
The U.S. has expressed regret for the deaths of the soldiers, but has balked at formally apologizing.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Newly elected Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf waves to his supporters in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Friday. Credit: B.K. Bangash / Associated Press