ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The leading candidate to become Pakistan's next prime minister was effectively blocked from the post when a narcotics court investigating a drug scandal ordered his arrest Thursday.
Makhdoom Shahabuddin, 65, was President Asif Ali Zardari's choice to be nominated to replace Yusaf Raza Gilani, who was ousted from office this week by the Supreme Court as a result of his contempt conviction in April for ignoring the court's order to revive an old corruption case against Zardari.
Shahabuddin, the country's outgoing textiles minister, had submitted nomination papers to parliament Thursday. Hours later, a magistrate in Rawalpindi issued an arrest warrant for Shahabuddin at the request of the country's Anti-Narcotics Force, which is run by a Pakistani general.
The court's move immediately raised suspicions that the country's judiciary, which has had an acrimonious relationship with Zardari since he took office, was again imposing its will on his government. Gilani's removal from office was seen by many as the culmination of a political vendetta waged by the Supreme Court and its chief justice, Itftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, against Zardari and his ruling party, the Pakistan People's Party.
Zardari's party reacted by scrambling to find alternate candidates. Outgoing Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira and Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, a lawmaker and a former water and power minister, have also had nomination papers submitted to parliament by the PPP.
Parliament is expected to elect a new prime minister on Friday. Zardari's party, together with a coalition of allied parties, has the votes needed to ensure the appointment of a PPP premier.
The arrest warrant against Shahabuddin centers on allegations that he, while health minister in 2010, was involved in ensuring the delivery of illegally imported amounts of ephedrine to two Pakistani pharmaceutical companies. Ephedrine can be used in the manufacture of methamphetamine.
The same warrant also sought the arrest of Gilani’s son, lawmaker Ali Musa Gilani, who investigators with the Anti-Narcotics Force say is also linked to the ephedrine scandal. Both men have previously denied the charges.
With national elections slated for next spring at the latest, analysts expect that the rift between the country's judiciary and Zardari's government will only deepen in coming months.
Chaudhry isn't expected to give up his demand that the government reopen graft charges against Zardari, and the new prime minister likely will find himself in the same corner Gilani was in -- having to decide whether to abide by the high court's request or risk a contempt conviction and ultimately the same fate Gilani suffered.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Makhdoom Shahabuddin, center, files nomination papers for the post of prime minister at the Pakistani parliament in Islamabad on Thursday. Credit: W. Khan / EPA