Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Raja Pervez Ashraf Becomes New Pakistani Prime Minister: Political Instability in Country Continues

Water and Power Minister Raja Parvez Ashraf has taken over as the new Pakistani prime minister. Filled with little difficulty with the country’s National Assembly (parliament) electing Ashraf as a replacement for Yousuf Raza Gilani, disqualified by the Supreme Court.

The 61-year-old loyalist of the Bhutto family was pitchforked into the hot seat after the original choice Makhdoom Shahabuddin faced an arrest warrant. But the new leader himself is dogged by corruption charges relating to his tenure as power minister.

The 342-member National Assembly chose Ashraf as the country's 25th prime minister with 211 votes, against Opposition PML-N nominee Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan Abbasi who got 89 votes.

Undoubtedly, Ashraf is lucky to have been elevated to the highest executive post, as the first choice of President Asif Ali Zardari, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, missed the bus because of an arrest warrant issued against him by a Sindh court in an ephedrine scam case.

Since the issue was contempt of the highest court in the land the verdict was not unexpected, though the scale of punishment is. While all Supreme Court verdicts must always be honored even if they do not appear to be sound, it may not be possible to avoid a prolonged discussion on the present judgment. There are quite a few issues that will need to be clarified.

To his admirers, Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is a hero whose relentless pursuit of a money-laundering case against the president is teaching a generation of the country's leaders a long-overdue lesson in respect for the law.

To his critics, he is a runaway judge in the grip of a messiah complex whose turbo-charged brand of activism threatens to upend the power balance underpinning Pakistan's precarious embrace of democracy.

Recently, Chaudhry made his boldest move yet by disqualifying Prime Minister Gilani as punishment for his repeated refusal to obey court orders to re-activate a corruption case against President Zardari.

Gilani's downfall marked a watershed in a long-running showdown between the judiciary and the government that has laid bare the institutional tensions plaguing a country that has test fired ballistic nuclear missiles, but has yet to agree on how it should be run.

"In practical terms, democracy is finished because the balance of power between the parliament, the executive and the judiciary has been ruined," said a senior member of Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

Judicial Coup
The military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its 65 years as an independent nation, has also not hidden its disdain of the Zardari government, but has made it clear it does not wish to seize power. And it has its own problems with Chaudhry's activism.

The present crisis has its roots in Gilani’s refusal to follow the Supreme Court’s 2009 order to request Swiss authorities to reopen cases of graft against President Zardari. On his part, Gilani has pointed out that the President enjoyed immunity from such charges. But the apex court had disagreed — having only recently overturned a 2007 presidential amnesty to politicians accused of corruption, from which Zardari and his late wife Benazir Bhutto benefited the most. Since then, an epic battle has ensued, with both institutions attempting to protect their own turf. Ultimately, in January the Supreme Court ordered legal proceedings against Gilani, and in April, the then Prime Minister was convicted for contempt of court. At the time, he was given only a token sentence with the apex court leaving it to the Speaker of the National Assembly to decide if Gilani could continue as prime minister.

The drama has been spiced by allegations of bribe-taking brought against Chaudhry's son by a billionaire property developer, who has himself been accused of land-grabbing and fraud. The controversy briefly put the stern-faced judge on the defensive before he regained the initiative by disqualifying Gilani.

The next chapter in the saga started when the Supreme Court holds its latest hearing in more than two years of legal wrangling aimed at forcing the government to re-open proceedings against Zardari.

Pakistan's political class is now transfixed by the question of whether Chaudhry will opt to pause in the wake of his victory over Gilani, or press home his advantage by demanding that Raja Pervez Ashraf, the new prime minister, reactivate the case.

Charges Against Gilani
Earlier on June 19, the Pakistani Supreme Court declared that Gilani stood disqualified as the prime minister since April 26, 2012 and ceased to be the premier since that date. The court punished with 30-second imprisonment. It also asked President Zardari to take steps for continuity of the democratic process, an apparent reference to the election of a new prime minister. Gilani was elected Prime Minister in March 2008 and has remained in that office longer than any other elected leader in the country’s history.

Capping approximately 30 months of bitter feud between the judiciary and the government, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Chaudhry held that Gilani, “ceased” to be the prime minister from April 26, 2012.

Gilani was then convicted and sentenced for not obeying court orders to reopen graft charges in Switzerland against President Zardari.

Contrary to expectations that the PPP will back him to the hilt, the ruling party said it would abide by the verdict and set in motion the process of selecting Gilani’s successor.

The Election Commission also issued a formal notice disqualifying Gilani as a Member of Parliament, hours after the Supreme Court ordered it to do so. A session of the National Assembly or lower house of Parliament is likely to be convened for the formal election of the new prime minister.

The present verdict came in response to several petitions that had challenged National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza’s decision not to disqualify Gilani following his conviction.

However, the timing of the judgment is definitely suspect as it comes only days after a business tycoon accused the Chief Justice’s son of accepting millions in bribes to swing cases. Also, the legal validity of the judgment has come under a cloud. References in the judgment, for instance, to two Indian court cases are largely misplaced.

New Cabinet
A total of 27 Federal Ministers and 11 Ministers of state were given portfolios. Hina Rabbani Khar and Naveed Qamar retained their portfolios of foreign and defense, respectively, in the new Cabinet, announced by Prime Minister Ashraf, which has some new faces. Most of the Ministers in Ashraf's Cabinet have been drawn from the previous dispensation of Gilani.

Hina retained the Foreign Ministry while Qamar Zaman Kaira, who had also filed his nomination for prime ministerial contest as a covering candidate, retained the Information Ministry. Qamar was again assigned the Defense Ministry.

Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, whose PML-Q party is a key ally in the Pakistan People's Party-led coalition, was again inducted as a senior minister and given the Defence Production and Industry portfolios.

Farzana Raja, a loyalist of PPP chief and President Asif Ali Zaradri, was among the new faces inducted into the Cabinet. She was given charge of the Benazir Income Support Programme, a scheme to help the poor.

The other members of the Cabinet include Makhdoom Amin Fahim (commerce), Arbab Alamgir Khan (communication), Nazar Muhammad Gondal (capital administration and development), Rana Muhammad Farooq Saeed Khan (climate change), Abdul Hafeez Shaikh (finance), Mir Hazar Khan Bajrani (inter-provincial coordination), Manzoor Wattoo (Kashmir affairs), Farooq Naek (law and justice).

Brief Profile
A strong loyalist of the Bhutto family, Ashraf hails from a family of agriculturists and remained in his occupation until he joined PPP of Rawalpindi in Punjab. Before joining active politics, 61-year-old Ashraf was an agriculturist and businessman by profession. He obtained his undergraduate degree from University of Sindh and did his diploma from UK in Industrial Management.

Ashraf, who was PPP cochairman Zardari’s second choice for the post of premier, became the main candidate after an arrest warrant was issued against party nominee Makhdoom Shahbuddin for alleged irregularities during his tenure as Health Minister.

Interestingly, Ashraf is facing a probe by the National Accountability Bureau for alleged corruption in rental power projects during his tenure as Water and Power Minister.

He was secretary-general of the PPP (Parliamentarians), a party formed in 2002 by the PPP for the purpose of complying with electoral rules governing Pakistani parties. The party contested the 2002 elections while former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was living in self-imposed exile.
Ashraf, who was elected to the National Assembly from Gujar Khan constituency in Rawalpindi district — both in 2002 and 2008 — served twice in the cabinet of Yousuf Raza Gilani, who was disqualified by the Supreme Court.

Ashraf resigned from Gilani’s cabinet in February 2011 after allegations of corruption in power projects. He returned to the cabinet in April 2012 when he was appointed minister for Information Technology. His candidature was backed by PML-Q, a major ally of the PPP with more than 50 seats in the National Assembly.

Tough Time Ahead
The new Pakistani prime minister not only faces corruption cases against him but is also considered an “insensitive” minister. He is accused of being solely responsible for Pakistan’s energy crisis. Instead of trying to find a workable solution to the worsening power supply problem, he has been making promises which he could never fulfill. It is surprising what made Mr Zardari choose him for heading the government as people have been protesting at different places over unending load-shedding, criticizing Ashraf for mishandling the situation.

Moreover, the new prime minister is also likely to face demands for reopening graft cases against Zardari from the Supreme Court.

Ashraf, who belongs to a royal family of Rawalpindi in Punjab, was elected in a two-way contest during a special session of Parliament after three other candidates – Shahabuddin and Qamar Zaman Kaira of the PPP and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman – withdrew from the race.

Zardari, a consummate political survivor, has already sacrificed Gilani in his determination to ensure the money-laundering case, which falls under Swiss jurisdiction and dates back the 1990s, remains closed.

While many Pakistanis are happy to see his unpopular government on the ropes, the pugnacious chief justice is facing a growing backlash from those who fear his court-room victories are being bought at the price of Pakistan's stability.

India will have to watch his moves as he has declared that he will try to do all he can to improve Pakistan’s ties with New Delhi. But will he have time for such moves when he has so much to concentrate on the domestic front.

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