Pakistan elects new prime minister as ruling party seeks to draw a line under weeks of political turmoil


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The Independent Online

Pakistan today elected a new prime minister as the country’s ruling party sought to draw a line under the political turmoil that has rocked the nation in recent weeks. How long the new premier will stay in the post remains unclear.

Raja Pervez Ashraf, who had previously served as power minister, was elected 211-89 by MPs casting their votes in the national assembly. The ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, will hope the election of Mr Ashraf will end at least some of the uncertainty created by the decision of the Supreme Court earlier this week to effectively fire Yousaf Raza Gilani by ruling that he was ineligible to continue in the premier’s role.

The court made the announcement two months after Mr Gilani was found guilty of contempt for refusing to ask the Swiss authorities to reopen an old corruption investigation against Mr Zardari.

But Mr Ashraf – who himself faces allegations of corruption – will immediately confront many problems. The economy is struggling, the relationship with the US is tense and there are crippling power shortages, which he was not able to solve while heading that ministry. The Supreme Court, headed by chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, may well make the same demands of Mr Ashraf in regard to the Swiss investigation that it did of Mr Gilani.

A general election has to be called by next March and while the PPP may wish to put it off as long as possible, many observers believe an earlier election is more likely. Indeed, one senior PPP leader, Khursheed Shah, today suggested as much when he said the party was heading into “an election year”.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political analyst, said he believed Mr Ashraf would most likely serve five or six months before elections were held. “Even if the [PPP-led] coalition wins that election, he may not return,” he said, adding: “There are very acute challenges. The Supreme Court is going to keep this government under pressure. He also has to keep the military happy.”

With its parliamentary majority, the PPP and its allies may have always assumed Mr Ashraf would easily beat the candidate of the main opposition party. But given the turmoil of the last few days, nothing could perhaps be taken for granted. Mr Zardari had originally wished to nominate as premier the former textiles minister, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, but was obliged to change course after a court issued an arrest warrant for him over allegations of involvement in a drugs scam.

The new prime minister boasts an unimpressive record in government. He has been questioned by anti-corruption investigators over allegations that he received kickbacks while in office, but he denies the claims. He also oversaw the importation of short-term power stations, or so-called rental power projects. The move was very expensive, inefficient and earned him the nickname “Raja Rental”.