Originally Published 2012-07-06 00:00:00 Published on Jul 06, 2012
Raja Pervez Ashraf became Pakistan's 25th Prime Minister eight months before the country goes to polls. His predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gilani, was disqualified by the Supreme Court on June 19, 2012 for failing to implement court's directions to investigate corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari.
New Pak PM's key challenges
On June 22, 2012, Raja Pervez Ashraf became Pakistan’s 25th Prime Minister eight months before the country goes to polls. His predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gilani, was disqualified by the Supreme Court on June 19, 2012 for failing to implement court’s directions to investigate corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari.

As the new Prime Minister, Raja Ashraf has no `honeymoon` period-facing him is a diverse set of challenges that stretch beyond the usual assortment of problems emblematic of Pakistan in recent times. He will have to quell anti-incumbency, mitigate the energy crisis and manage a flailing economy, accommodate the concerns of the military, restore Pakistan’s relations with the United States and prevent further isolation, and reconcile with the contradictions presented by an extremely complicated counter-terrorism programme.

These difficulties are not unprecedented. Their diagnosis and policy prescriptions too have been widely debated both within Pakistan as well as the international community which is increasingly concerned over Pakistan’s descent into a ’failing state’.

Apart from inheriting such a basketful of woes from Yousaf Raza Gilani, Ashraf will be confronted with an additional set of tasks that relate more to electoral politics and efforts to shield Zardari, than with the more conventional aspects of administration. His leadership will be tested by three crucial tests. First, he will have to resist the Supreme Court’s attempts to pursue the corruption cases against Zardari. Second, he will have to maintain unity among regional allies known to be driven by self-interest before the 2013 elections. Third, he will have to maintain cohesion within the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and ensure a sense of solidarity among senior members who will vie for the coveted post in a year’s time.

Of the challenges which the new Prime Minister has to grapple with, three calls for his immediate attention.

SC vs Zardari

The Supreme Court’s determination to bring corruption charges against Zardari is going to remain the proverbial Albatross across Ashraf’s neck. For the last two-and-a-half years, the judiciary has been leaning hard on the PPP government to reopen the cases of corruption against leading politicians of the country, including Zardari.

Former Prime Minister Gillani had refused to follow the court’s clear directions and faced the consequences of being disqualified as a member of the National Assembly last month. Now Ashraf faces the Catch-22 situation. He cannot afford to defy the court nor can he let his party chief and President Zardari to face corruption charges in Swiss courts.

With the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudary, in a dogged pursuit of everything banal and corrupt in the country, Ashraf cannot hope to find an easy way out. The question is whether he will be able to convince his party chief, Zardari, to step down for the sake of his party’s prospects in the forthcoming elections. Or will Zardari, a shrewd survivor that he is, do a Houdini and escape the tightening noose around his neck. All eyes will however be on Ashraf and his next move on the issue in the looming presence of a judicial hawk.

Coalition Politics

With elections barely eight months away, the real test of Ashraf’s political acumen will be to retain PPP’s alliance with key coalition partners such as the Sindh-based Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), the Pashtun Awami National Party (ANP), the JUI-F, and rival-turned-ally Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q). Barring ANP, PPP has had differences with each of its partners over allocation of portfolios and other issues. For instance, the MQM made repeated threats to withdraw its support and did so in early 2011, , reducing, in the process, the PPP Government to a minority in the Assembly.

Ashraf’s visit to Sindh immediately after assuming office should be seen in this context. Speaking at Karachi House, the residence of Pakistan Muslim League Functional’s chief Pir Pagara VIII, the new Prime Minister said, ’the policies adopted by Yousaf Raza Gilani were actually the policies of coalition partners, and the incumbent government will continue the same.’ (The Express Tribune, June 26, 2012). The highlight of his Sindh trip, however, was the visit to Nine Zero, the headquarters of the MQM, where he met with senior leaders of the party and held a phone conference with its chief Altaf Hussain, who lives in London. Hussain praised Ashraf for his middle-class origins and remarked that for the first time ’a worker has become the Prime Minister’ (The Nation, June 26, 2012). He also waxed eloquent on Zardari for ’avoiding confrontation’ by accepting Gilani’s disqualification. Granted that these statements lack substance - Zardari, who is seldom praised, didn’t really have a choice but to accept the Court’s decision, and Ashraf, far from a ’worker’, typifies the affluent businessman-turned-politician who uses public office for personal gain. Still, these statements indicate a growing rapprochement between MQM and PPP. That being the case, their relation, while important, remains complicated, and it cannot be said with certainty whether they would actually contest the 2013 elections as partners.

Cohesion within PPP

Ashraf’s visit to Karachi also served another purpose - to demonstrate, not only to Zardari but also to his distractors in PPP, his loyalty to the Bhutto family. Upon arrival in Sindh, he offered fateha (prayer in remembrance) at the mazar (shrine) of Zulfiqar Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto, besides offering prayers in the graves of other members of the Bhutto family.

Like many in the PPP, Raja Ashraf represents the current crop of senior politicians who lack a popular support base and owe their position to Zardari. In turn, Ashraf realises that he has been rewarded with the unenviable position of being a sacrificial lamb and is expected to protect Zardari from an overzealous judiciary. He has already declared that he will not initiate proceedings against Zardari. Should be survive the next eight months and the PPP-led coalition emerge victorious in the elections, Ashraf might get a shot at the coveted post once more.

But given the current uncertainty over his future, Ashraf could face a strong, undercurrent of dissension from among the senior party leaders. He, therefore, will have to use subtle interpersonal skills to maintain the party’s cohesion and prevent in-fighting.


It is not a secret that Raja Pervez Ashraf lacks the strong powerbase of Nawaz Sharif, the popularity and charisma of Imran Khan, the stature and statesman-like standing of Asfandyar Wali, and the organisationa; skills of Karachi’s Mayor and rising MQM politician Mustafa Kamal. Rather, he represents the stereotypical businessman-politician, attracted to the spoils of public office and the influence that comes with it.

His lack of standing within or outside the PPP ensures that Ashraf will rely on Zardari’s patronage to remain in office. His overriding brief, therefore, will be to protect his President from whom his power flows.

That said, Pakistan’s history is replete with anecdotes that belie such simplistic models of power equations. It remains too early to predict Ashraf’s future, given the approaching elections; his extended stay at the Prime Minister’s office cannot be ruled out. Unfortunately, political fire-fighting (shielding the President, coalition building, and preventing party infighting) and not governance and nation-building are going to consume much of his time in office.

(Kaustav Dhar Chakrabarti is Junior Fellow at Centre for International Relations, ORF)

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