Politics turns to farce in Pakistan as judge orders arrest of candidate who could replace ousted prime minister


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The Independent Online

Pakistan’s attempt to select a new prime minister veered towards farce today as a court issued an arrest warrant for the man chosen by President Asif Ali Zardari to be his next premier.

Mr Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) announced this morning that Makhdoom Shahabuddin, who had been serving as textiles minister, would be its candidate for the post.

The vacancy was created after the Supreme Court earlier this week announced that Yousaf Raza Gilani’s conviction in April for contempt of court meant he could no longer remain in the job.

The PPP believed the nomination of Mr Shahabuddin, a party stalwart from southern Punjab, would help ensure continuity ahead of elections that are due to take place before next spring.

But almost as soon as Mr Shahabuddin had filed his nomination papers, it was announced that an anti-narcotics court in the city of Rawalpindi had issued a warrant for his arrest over his alleged role in a 2010 scam involving the production of ephedrine, which can be used to make methamphetamine. At the time he was the health minister.

Mr Gilani’s son, Ali Musa Gilani, was also said to be involved and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Both men deny the allegations.

The PPP had already filed nomination papers for a back-up candidate, Raja Pervez Ashraf.

After news emerged of the arrest warrant, papers were filed for a third candidate, former information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira. Two other parties also filed nomination documents for their own candidates.

Last night, the PPP was meeting to decide which candidate will be chosen, with Mr Shahabuddin potentially still in the frame.

A vote in the national assembly to select a premier, which the PPP should comfortably win, is due to take place tomorrow.

Local media gave conflicting reports as to who the PPP would select. One PPP source, who asked not to be identified, said: “The situation is very fluid.”

The twist is the latest confrontation between the PPP and the increasingly forward-leaning judiciary, led by chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The anti-narcotics force is controlled by the military and many will also see the hands of the powerful army at play in the latest turmoil.

“It’s like a soap opera,” said author and analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. “It seems like the table is being laid for the military, if not to take over directly, then to insert a government of its choosing. Everybody in this fight is weakened. It’s not just the PPP, it’s politicians at large. Everybody looks bad, apart from the military.”

The battle to select a PM comes as Pakistan is battling problems on many fronts, including a stalling economy, a bitter dispute with the US and power crisis that have left some parts of the country without electricity for up to 18 hours a day. Whoever is selected as PM will also have to confront a judiciary that has shown its willingness to take on the political establishment.