Pakistan Elects ‘Rental Raja’ as Prime Minister
By Ben Doherty for The Sydney Morning Herald
A turbulent week in Pakistani politics has ended with the election of a new prime minister, but one who appears unlikely to stay long in the top job.
The past seven days have seen a long-serving prime minister sacked by the Supreme Court for contempt, his putative replacement felled by an arrest warrant for drugs importation and, finally, a stopgap candidate elected, with the country now almost certainly headed for early elections within months.
The new prime minister is Raja Pervez Ashraf, a 61-year-old from Sindh, who was water and power minister in the previous government. That job made him unpopular in a country stricken by chronic power shortages that only worsened on his watch. Some parts of the country are blacked out 22 hours a day. Mr Ashraf has also been accused of corruption over the importation of short-term power stations. Known as ”rental power” projects, they were costly and produced little power.
He is accused of making millions on the side from the deals and his derogatory nickname ”Rental Raja” was shouted by opponents in Parliament yesterday even as he was showered in rose petals on his election. Mr Ashraf won the parliamentary vote for prime minister 211 votes to 89.
In his first speech to Parliament, Mr Ashraf called on Pakistani Taliban militants to lay down their arms. ”The irresponsible behaviour of religious extremists has ruined Islam and Pakistan. I, as prime minister of Pakistan, appeal to them to lay down arms and join the mainstream of life.”
And he said his government would look to rebuild its relationship with key ally and aid donor, the US. ”We will develop cordial relations with the United States and international community on the basis of equal rights and dignity,” he said. Relations between the countries have rarely been worse, and show little scope for improvement.
Pakistan is refusing to reopen its border to Afghanistan to American trucks, after a botched US attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. And the US will not countenance abandoning its drone attack program in Pakistan’s north-west.
Regardless, few in Pakistan believe Mr Ashraf will have time to deliver even a fraction of what he promised in his maiden address. His government has, at most, nine months before elections are due, but they are expected now before the end of the year. ”This year will be the year of new elections, and we are going for the elections,” senior Pakistani People’s Party member Khursheed Shah said.
Raza Rumi, director of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute, said Mr Ashraf was a ”cynical choice” for PM. ”Whoever takes over as prime minister will be in for a very short time. Obviously the Pakistan People’s Party will not choose its best for this stint. They will choose people who can be dispensed with.”
On Tuesday, the former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, was dismissed by the Supreme Court for refusing a direction to write a letter allowing Swiss authorities to investigate corruption allegations against Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (the same demand is likely to be made of Mr Ashraf). Then, the man tipped to fill the PM’s post, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, had an arrest warrant issued for him over the illegal importation of the chemical ephedrine, used to make methamphetamine.