Pakistan's new prime minister faces formidable challenges

Muhammad Tahir
Monday, 25-June-2012


ISLAMABAD: Pakistanís new prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, formally assumed office on Saturday and is facing countless and tough challenges ahead, with the most formidable ones being the energy crisis, corruption, dealing with independent judiciary, aggressive opposition groups and the revival of normal relationship with the United States.

Ashraf took over three days after the country's Supreme Court ruled that his predecessor, Yusuf Raza Gilani, is disqualified from holding office. He was convicted of contempt of court for refusing to re-open corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.

The new prime minister in his maiden speech to parliament Friday evening offered talks with the opposition to deal with the country's difficult problems, but opposition leaders dismissed any possibility of reconciliation and called for fresh parliamentary polls.

Ashraf faces internal and external problems and the most challenging issue remains corruption cases that he himself and several key leaders of his ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) are presently facing.

Shortly before his election as new prime minister, Pervez Ashraf received a strong message from the Supreme Court that it is set to resume next week hearing of a controversial amnesty law, which has been the major reason for Gilani's exit.

The apex court scrapped the National Reconciliation Ordinance in 2009 and reopened all corruption cases including those against President Asif Ali Zardari and nearly 8,000 people, mostly politicians.

The Supreme Court pressed Gilani to reopen cases against President Zardari, but he refused to accept the court's repeated orders. Gilani's refusal to write to Swiss authorities for reopening of corruption cases against President Zardari showed him the door and now the new prime minister will have to receive the same court's orders.

A petition, seeking orders to be issued to the new prime minister to write to Swiss authorities, was filed in a Pakistan court on Saturday. But President Zardari has categorically said no PPP prime minister would write to Swiss authorities, which means Ashraf's refusal will also deprive him of his prime ministerial position.

Ashraf himself is facing charges of receiving kickbacks in a rental power project and is currently defending himself in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. He has also been accused of buying foreign property with illegal money.

The Supreme Court declared him involved in the rental power project scam and asked the anti-corruption department to start investigation against him. He would now be a soft target for the judiciary, media and the opposition because of corruption charges against him.

The opposition, the Pakistan Muslim League N, the second largest political party of the country after the PPP, has already announced to move court against the new premier.

The fast growing corruption in government departments, unemployment and price hikes are other alarming challenges for the new prime minister.

To the new premier, the energy crisis might be the most formidable challenge as the country is facing a power shortfall of thousands of megawatts, which has recently caused violent riots.

When Ashraf was minister for water and power (2008-2011), he had promised to end power outage, but he had never been successful and the shortage was recorded at nearly 8,000 mw this month.

The new prime minister mentioned power crisis in his maiden speech in the National Assembly Friday evening. But he did not offer any immediate solution, which means the problem will haunt him. As there is no immediate solution in the offing, the electricity crisis may worsen as demand would increase in the coming two months in summer.

The new prime minister also faces the problem of armed militants, terror attacks and sectarian terrorism.

Sensing the problem, Prime Minister Ashraf appealed to the militants to lay down arms and join the national mainstream of society, but the militants have rejected similar appeals from the former prime minister. The militants have stepped up attacks in recent weeks, which clearly show their mood. So there is no immediate solution to the problem.

Now defense analysts are advising the government to establish writ in border regions, especially in North Waziristan, ahead of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

The United States has welcomed the new Pakistani prime minister and vowed to work with him at a time when relationship is at its lowest ebb in years. All efforts to normalize relations between the two close allies have not yet produced any results. The main hurdle is seen as the U.S. refused to apologize for the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike in November last year.

The fresh refusal came from the U.S. Secretary Defense Leon Panetta on Friday when he said that Washington will not tender apology. At the same time a U.S. report suggests that American diplomats in Pakistan are being harassed. Pakistan denied the charges.

On the other hand, Pakistan is unwilling to reopen the supply line for NATO forces in Afghanistan unless the U.S. accepts its demands including the U.S. apology and payment of tax on NATO trucks.

The new Pakistani prime minister in his Friday parliament speech briefly mentioned Pakistan's wish to have dignified relations with the United States.

The much needed peace and reconciliation in neighboring Afghanistan is key to Pakistan's stability and the U.S. and Kabul seek Islamabad's active role to facilitate the process by convincing the Afghan Taliban to join the peace process.

Pakistan on a number of occasions have promised to help in the peace process, but President Hamid Karzai's administration now wants Pakistan takes practical steps as the Afghan endgame is set to be started. Realizing Pakistan's role, Ashraf touched on Afghanistan in his maiden parliament address.

Although Pakistan and India are talking to resolve long- standing disputes, the new prime minister will face the challenge as how to restore the trust of India to make the dialogue process fruitful. Ashraf vowed good relationship with India and said Pakistan will continue talks with India, a positive sign sent across the border.

In foreign relations, the prime minister referred exclusively to Pakistan's historic and time-tested relations with China and praised Beijing for siding with Islamabad in all difficult times. Ashraf's comments on China received applause in parliament at a time when Islamabad is struggling to put on track its relations with the United States.


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