Ashraf is known as “Raja Rental”, for presiding over deals which involved the government paying cronies to set up temporary or “rental” power plants, to plug the crippling shortfall in electricity supply, while he was energy minister.
The temperature in Pakistan’s hyper-activist Supreme Court must have reached boiling point after Raja Pervez Ashraf was chosen on June 22nd as the candidate of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for prime minister. His predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gilani, was thrown out of the job this week by their Lordships.
The PPP had initially chosen Makhdoom Shahabuddin, an aristocratic former health minister, as the next prime minister, on June 20th. But by the following day it had to hurriedly ditch him, after a warrant was issued for his arrest. While he was health minister, the ministry approved the import of a huge quantity of a chemical that can be used to manufacture ecstasy pills and other narcotics. By Friday, instead of walking into Prime Minister’s House, Mr Shahabuddin was in court, seeking pre-arrest bail.
The choice of Mr Ashraf is deeply problematic. He is known to all Pakistan as “Raja Rental”, for presiding over deals which involved the government paying cronies to set up temporary or “rental” power plants, to plug the crippling shortfall in electricity supply, while he was energy minister.
The rental plants were often established with ageing equipment, though the government was charged for new gear, and the blackouts only grew. Rental power was deemed a “total failure” according to a Supreme Court judgment on the issue earlier this year, for producing high cost and insufficient electricity.
That verdict found that officials involved, including Mr Ashraf, had “violated the principle of transparency” and must be investigated by the anti-corruption watchdog, the National Accountability Bureau, to see if they were “getting financial benefits” out of the “scam”.
But more than the courts, the people of Pakistan will feel aggrieved at the appointment of a man whose ministry oversaw over a national disaster, pursuing questionable schemes while simply watching the problem grow. Mr Ashraf, 61, became known for continually predicting the imminent end of the electricity shortage, only to have to eat his words before unabashedly issuing a new rosy prediction.
In recent days, the relentless summer heat has triggered violent protests across Punjab, the province that houses over half the population, over the electricity shortages, which means that fans and refrigerators don’t work. There is misery for households while industry is being shut down.
Some in Pakistan see even darker clouds ahead. The appointment of Mr Ashraf will also not impress the military, which is the ultimate arbiter of Pakistan’s political process. The timing of the move on Mr Shahabuddin was seen as highly suspicious, not least by him. The Anti-Narcotics Force, which is headed by an army general, is pursing Mr Shahabuddin.
Conspiracy theorists-which includes most people here-think the object is to force early elections or even create such chaos that an excuse will be found to impose an unelected government of technocrats, by the military and courts working together. Elections have to be called by March 2013 anyway.
The legal-political circus is set to continue, so Mr Ashraf’s tenure could be very short lived. Mr Gilani was disqualified from office by the Supreme Court for refusing to write a letter to the Swiss authorities to request the re-opening of dormant money-laundering cases against the president, Asif Ali Zardari, who also heads the PPP.
Mr Ashraf is expected by his boss, the president, to resist court orders. As the legal arguments now having already been exhausted with Mr Gilani, the court will probably give Mr Ashraf little time to comply before also dispensing with him. Then yet another prime minister will be needed. Pakistan can forget about any actual business of government getting done.