President Asif Ali Zardari is known to hurl bouncers at unsuspecting observers of Pakistani politics, especially in times of crises – Hina Rabbani Khar as foreign minister, Sherry Rehman as ambassador to US – but Raja Pervez Ashraf is still inexplicable.
Ashraf emerged as the winner in a messy race to the top spot after Yousaf Raza Gilani was disqualified by the Supreme Court in a contempt case.
How did he beat the contenders?
The race to the chief executive spot was not supposed to be easy, and it had its casualties.
Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar had a head start but went on to declare, and basically shoot himself in the foot, that he might be the prime minister. Mukhtar perhaps forgot that in President Zardari’s style of politicking, if it is too obvious, it will not be.
Makhdoom Shahabuddin followed, with Ashraf as a covering candidate. There was consensus, and all was swell, until the arrest warrants were issued by the Anti Narcotics Force. As Shahabuddin went down, Qamar Zaman Kaira appeared out of the blue and submitted his papers. Eventually, Ashraf made it past all to the finishing line.
Was it his good fortune (and others’ misfortune), or is this a masterstroke by President Zardari? The jury is still out on that one.
Strengths and weaknesses
On the face of it, his proximity to the corridors of power goes in Ashraf’s favour. A senior Pakistan Peoples Party leader, originally from Sindh, and rakes in an important constituency sound good enough credentials on paper. Ashraf has been elected to the National Assembly twice from NA-51 (Rawalpindi II) – in 2002, and then in 2008. He has also previously served as the secretary general of the PPP.
His public performance, however, has been far from stellar.
As water and power minister between 2008 and 2011, Ashraf failed so spectacularly that he had to be removed. His notorious ‘December’ deadlines for an end to load-shedding even invited the rebuke of former premier Gilani, who asked him publicly to stop giving December deadlines.
After his portfolio was taken away, Ashraf made headlines again for his involvement in the rental power plant fiasco. In its verdict that declared all rental power plant agreements illegal, the apex court also called for initiating legal proceedings against Ashraf since the entire scheme was envisaged and executed under his minister-ship. Those legal proceedings are yet to start.
Why him then?
It will take some time for this to sink in – that Ashraf is our elected prime minister. The last time the entire country was this baffled was when Zardari himself became the president.
But observers say Raja could be here for one of the two reasons. Either, by choosing a candidate who has had friction with the judiciary, the party is announcing its confrontation with the judiciary. Or, he is electorally dispensible, and will be sacrificed at the altar of Swiss letter, just the way Gilani was.
He clearly is not a serious contender for premiership, and his tenure will not bring any electoral dividends to the PPP. Zardari, we can safely assume, is aware of that.
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