Pakistan’s main ruling party yesterday nominated Raja Pervez Ashraf as prime minister and said it was heading toward elections, forced onto the back foot after a court issued an arrest warrant for its first candidate.
The lower house of parliament was to meet at 12:30am to elect a new prime minister in a bid to end a political crisis sparked by the Pakistani Supreme Court’s dismissal of incumbent Yousuf Raza Gilani for contempt.
The chaos is the culmination of a standoff between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government, dogged by corruption allegations, and the judiciary, accused of working behind the scenes with the military and the political opposition.
Ashraf is a controversial choice. Currently fighting a corruption case from his tenure as minister for water and power, he also shares at least part of the blame for the Pakistani government’s inability to resolve a disastrous energy crisis.
The election of any new premier is unlikely to do anything to ease appalling power cuts that enrage millions or end the stalemate in relations with the US that have led to a seven-month blockade on NATO supplies into Afghanistan.
The new appointee will also come under immediate pressure from the Supreme Court to write to Swiss authorities, asking them to reopen corruption investigations into Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari — refusal for which saw Gilani convicted of contempt.
“Raja Pervez Ashraf is our candidate,” party official Syed Khurshid Shah said, adding that the government was heading toward an election.
“This is [an] election year and we are going toward elections,” Shah said, referring to the national assembly year, which starts in June. “If we have committed some mistakes or did not fulfill our manifesto, then the decision should be left to the people of Pakistan.”
Ashraf, who served as information technology minister until Tuesday, was originally named as a “cover” candidate when Zardari picked former textiles minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin as his preferred choice.
Some analysts had expected the party to favor information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, who is considered to have more political clout and a clean record.
Shahabuddin said yesterday that the warrant was “done to embarrass the president.”
“It is a conspiracy against me because the day I was nominated for the premiership — on that very day — arrest warrants were issued,” he told reporters.
A court in the city of Peshawar yesterday granted him interim bail that would protect him for arrest for seven days, his lawyer said.
The arrest warrant was issued on Thursday by an anti-narcotics court over his alleged involvement in the illegal import of a controlled drug in 2010 when he was health minister.
Analysts suggested that it could have signaled that the powerful military, considered the chief arbiter of power in Pakistan, were unprepared to back Shahabuddin.
A warrant was also issued for Ali Musa Gilani, son of the outgoing premier.
Four other politicians, including two from the opposition, are also standing in what is considered a largely symbolic move as the PPP leads a majority in the assembly.
The PPP won elections in 2008 ending nearly a decade of military rule and if elections are held, will become the first elected administration in Pakistan’s history to complete its term in office and hand over to another elected government.