ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's ruling party named a new candidate for prime minister who was expected to be approved by parliament later Friday, setting the stage for what is likely to be a short and turbulent premiership.
The announcement of Raja Pervaiz Ashraf as premier-designate followed a week of turbulence that pitted the Supreme Court against the government in a high-stakes battle for power in this nuclear-armed country considered crucial to the U.S.'s war in Afghanistan. The crisis was triggered earlier this week when the high court disqualified the current prime minister over a corruption probe.
Ashraf, who was the minister for information technology in the recently ousted government, was originally put forward as a backup candidate but got the nod after the first choice was hit with an arrest warrant following his nomination on Thursday.
The parliament is scheduled to vote on Ashraf's candidacy Friday evening. The ruling coalition has a majority so Ashraf is likely to be approved. The Pakistan People's Party is the largest party in the coalition.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday disqualified Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister for failing to ask a Swiss court to initiate a corruption probe into the president's affairs, the climax of more than two years of legal maneuvering against the premier.
A senior PPP member, Khursheed Shah, said during a news conference Friday that the party had decided on Ashraf after consultations with their coalition partners. "Raja Pervaiz Ashraf is our final nominee," he said.
During the news conference, the PPP also announced new elections. Opposition members had been calling for new elections to be held immediately, but the ruling party, fearing it would not do well, was reluctant to call the vote. Shah did not give a date for the elections, but the earliest they could likely be held is late in the fall. Elections were originally going to be held early next year.
"This year will be the year of new elections, and we are going for the elections," he said.
Ashraf's tenure will almost certainly be as rocky as it would be short.
The Supreme Court is likely to renew its request that the prime minister ask the Swiss court to open the corruption probe of President Asif Ali Zardari, who was elected in 2008 following the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto.
The money-laundering allegations against Zardari date back to the 1990s. Gilani argued that Zardari enjoys immunity while in power and refused the court's request.
There's little chance that the Swiss would reopen the case after all these years, calling into question the reasons behind the Pakistan court's insistence on the issue. Critics say the court is taking on too overt a political role that threatens the democratic process in a country where elected governments have been toppled by army coups often sanctioned by the court.
The court's supporters say activist judges are needed to keep a check on rampant corruption and misuse of power by the government. They point out the court has also been carrying out investigations into human rights abuses by the military.
When asked whether the new prime minister would write a letter to the Swiss authorities, Shah said: "We will consult our coalition partners when such a stage comes."
Ashraf himself has also been accused of corruption allegations, relating to power projects. While in a previous position as the head of the water and power ministry he oversaw the import of short-term power stations, or "rental power" projects that cost the government millions of dollars but produced little energy. The Supreme Court has accused him of corruption related to the schemes, earning him the nickname "Raja Rental" in the Pakistani media. Ashraf denies any wrongdoing.
When Shah was asked about the corruption allegations against the new candidate, he said allegations are leveled against many people, but no charges have ever been proven against Ashraf.
The political jockeying for power likely means Pakistan's more weighty problems will fall by the wayside until a new government is established. The country's economy is in shambles. The military is fighting a violent insurgency in the tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan. In many parts of the country, residents receive only a few hours of electricity a day, sparking violent riots earlier this week.
Pakistan and U.S. relations are also at an all-time low. The U.S. accuses Pakistan of not going after insurgent groups operating in its tribal areas while Pakistan says the U.S. doesn't give it credit for the losses it has suffered fighting al-Qaida and other militant groups.
Pakistan closed U.S. and NATO supply routes going through Pakistan into Afghanistan after American forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops on the border. Pakistan refuses to open the routes without an American apology.