New prime minister unlikely to end Pakistan's political scuffles

Raja Pervez Ashraf was selected to be the new Pakistani prime minister today, just three days after his predecessor was ousted by the Supreme Court in an ongoing political struggle.

By , Correspondent

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    Pakistan's Prime Minister-elect Raja Pervez Ashraf waves to media after a meeting with Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain (not pictured) head of coalition party Pakistan Muslim League Quaid in Islamabad June 22.
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Pakistan's national assembly selected a new prime minister Friday, just three days after the Pakistani Supreme Court effectively dismissed the previous prime minister.  But the election of Raja Pervez Ashraf to fill the prime minister's seat is unlikely to resolve an ongoing political tussle between Pakistan's executive and judicial powers.

The election of Mr. Ashraf, Pakistan's former minister for Information Technology, follows several days of political maneuvering between Pakistan's highest court and its ruling party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). On Tuesday, the Supreme Court declared former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani ineligible to hold office due to a prior conviction, dissolving Mr. Gilani's cabinet. The PPP put forward Textile Minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin to replace Gilani, but the courts effectively blocked Mr. Shahabuddin's nomination by issuing an arrest warrant for him.

The motive behind the court's decisions to dismiss Gilani and to issue the warrant for Shahabuddin has divided observers. Some accuse the court of deliberately undermining the democratically elected PPP, and point out that Gilani's dismissal and the warrant for Shahabuddin were issued at the behest of a military-run anti-drug agency, suggesting the quiet intervention of the politically powerful Army. Others say that the court is following through on its constitutional responsibility. Most, however, think the tussle indicates personal vendettas rather than principled stances.

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“Both the Supreme Court and the PPP are narrowly defining democracy as whatever is currently in their interest," says Nadir Hassan, a columnist with the Express Tribune. "This is a clash of personalities rather than one of principles. Both sides may win small victories but ultimately the country will lose.”

The Supreme Court was also thrown into disrepute after Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhury's son, Arsalan Iftikhar, was accused of accepting gifts from business tycoon Malik Riaz in exchange for influencing his father's rulings. The court has been a particularly active political player ever since it helped topple the former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf. Other than dismissing the prime minister, Chief Justice Chaudhury has also called Pakistan's notorious paramilitary outfit the Frontier Corps and its spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, to court on allegations about missing persons and election rigging, respectively.

Will the new prime minister make a difference?

Ashraf, the new prime minister, is considered a party loyalist within the PPP. Therefore, his nomination does not indicate any significant shift in Pakistan's foreign policy towards the US. The demands made by Pakistan of the US were formulated in a 14-point resolution by a broad coalition in parliament. There is little indication that the internal tussle will effect the talks around the reopening of NATO supply routes.

But Ashraf's position may prove as tenuous as his predecessor's. Ashraf has previously been accused of receiving bribes in a rental power project in Pakistan, and of buying foreign property with illegal money. The Supreme Court found him guilty in the rental power project case, and dismissed him from his office as minister for Water and Power. During a cabinet reshuffle, he was brought back in as minister of Information Technology.

With Ashraf's political vulnerabilities so similar to those of Gilani, the court may bring the same sort of pressures it used on Gilani against the new prime minister.  Gilani was dismissed from his post after he refused to reopen corruption cases against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. Constitutional changes have given the prime minister more authority than the president. But Mr. Zardari's position as co-chairman – along with his son – of the PPP means he continues to hold influence over party loyalists serving as prime ministers. The Supreme Court had asked Gilani to send a letter to Swiss authorities to revive graft cases against Zardari. Gilani argued that Zardari was immune as president, and that his refusal hinged on his belief that reopening such cases was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has already indicated that it will make the same request of the new prime minister. However, some believe that the new government will probably call for elections soon.

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