Pakistan ruling party replaces prime minister nominee after arrest warrant

ISLAMABAD Fri Jun 22, 2012 6:36am EDT

A supporter of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) holds an image of the Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani as he shouts slogans during a protest against a Supreme Court verdict in Karachi April 26, 2012. REUTERS/Athar Hussain

A supporter of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) holds an image of the Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani as he shouts slogans during a protest against a Supreme Court verdict in Karachi April 26, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Athar Hussain

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's ruling party on Friday nominated former water and power minister Raja Pervez Ashraf to replace the ousted prime minister, as political intrigue gripped the U.S. ally.

The South Asian nation's three power centers - the military, civilian leadership and Supreme Court -- have been furiously maneuvering in recent weeks in a struggle for influence.

The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) had nominated the textiles minister to replace Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who was disqualified by the Supreme Court this week.

But an anti-narcotics court issued an arrest warrant for the textiles minister, undermining his bid, in a move analysts said may have been orchestrated by the powerful military.

Parliament meets on Friday to elect a new prime minister, who will face a staggering range of troubles from a struggling economy to poverty to crumbling infrastructure.

The ruling coalition has the numbers in parliament to comfortably elect Ashraf, who faces two candidates from opposition parties.

Pakistan also faces tensions on the diplomatic front. The country's longstanding alliance with the United States has frequently been subject to turbulence, but relations are at their lowest point in years.

The opening salvo in the domestic drama came when the Supreme Court removed Gilani - one of the longest serving civilian prime ministers in a country dominated by the military.

Then an anti-narcotics court moved against the PPP's first choice to replace him, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, issuing an arrest warrant against the minister because of his alleged connection with a case of illegal quotas for ephedrine.

The warrant was sought by Pakistan's Anti-Narcotics Force, which is run by the military, ruler of Pakistan for over half of its 64-year history.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is expected to keep up pressure on the new prime minister to reopen corruption cases against PPP chief and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari.

For Pakistanis, the latest power play has only deepened frustrations with daily hardships and what has been described as a failed state by some.

As water and power minister, Ashraf was seen by many Pakistanis as someone who had failed to ease a crippling energy crisis, which sporadically triggers violent protests.

"Ashraf would be the wrath of God on the nation," said Muhammad Rizwan, an unemployed middle-aged man fanning himself outside his home in the eastern city of Lahore.

Power cuts had again disabled his fans.

"There will be a serious crisis in every sector after he becomes prime minister," Rizwan added.

TURMOIL COULD SPARK EARLY ELECTION

The turmoil has raised the possibility of elections being held before early next year, when they were expected.

"This is an election year. We are going towards elections," said senior PPP official Khursheed Shah, suggesting an early poll was possible.

Chief Justice Chaudhry, who has gained notoriety by going after Pakistan's most powerful leaders, came under scrutiny himself during the latest political upheaval.

Real estate tycoon Malik Riaz accused Chaudhry's son of accepting almost $3.6 million in bribes from him in exchange for favorable verdicts in cases involving his businesses. He also accused Chaudhry of knowing about the bribes and not doing anything about them until the case sparked a media frenzy.

Riaz has not presented any examples of such verdicts and Arsalan Iftikhar, the chief justice's son, denies any wrongdoing.

If confirmed, Ashraf, who faced allegations of corruption during his term as water and power minister, is unlikely to boost the confidence of Pakistanis in their government. He denied any wrongdoing.

"Things will change but for the worse," said Shoaib Ahmed, 30, a scientist at an Islamabad oil company. "That's what happens when you replace a moderately corrupt person with a very corrupt person."

(Additional reporting by Mubasher Bokhari in LAHORE and Jibran Ahmad in PESHAWAR; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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