ISLAMABAD: President Asif Ali Zardari hoped on Wednesday to nominate a new prime minister following a night of crisis talks after the Supreme Court disqualified Yousuf Raza Gilani for contempt.
The move could ease uncertainty in a country that is increasingly trying US patience over al Qaeda-linked havens, struggling with a Taliban insurgency and heading deeper towards a financial crisis that could force it back to the IMF.
The court ruling effectively dissolved the cabinet and unless the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and its fractious coalition members agree on a replacement prime minister, could bring elections forward to later this year.
Ahmed Mukhtar, until recently defence minister and now minister for water and power, is thought to be the most likely candidate, favoured for his experience and unflinching loyalty to President Asif Ali Zardari.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, who has made international headlines for her beauty and designer handbags, has been apparently ruled out for inexperience.
“The process of consultation is continuing. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has made up its mind to elect a new prime minister rather than confront the court and create constitutional deadlock,” a government official told AFP.
Zardari was to present “three or four names” to coalition party leaders late Tuesday to try and find a consensus, said the official.
Aside from Mukhtar, other strong candidates were Makhdoom Shahabuddin, the textiles minister, and Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the commerce minister.
“If all the coalition parties agree on a name, then the PPP is expected to announce the name for new prime minister on Wednesday,” the official said.
The nominee would then need to be approved by parliament, where the PPP-led governing coalition has a majority.
The crisis is the worst in a showdown between the judiciary led by the popular, anti-corruption campaigning chief justice, and the government which waited till March 2009 to restore independent judges sacked under the military.
The Supreme Court convicted Gilani of contempt on April 26 for refusing to ask Switzerland to reopen multi-million-dollar graft cases against Zardari.
Gilani always insisted Zardari had immunity as head of state and that writing to the Swiss would be a violation of Pakistan's constitution.
The new prime minister will also come under pressure from the court, for which analysts said Zardari was determined to appoint a loyalist and someone from the central province of Punjab to supplement his powerbase in the south.
Members of the government believe the court is trying to bring down Gilani and Zardari before February 2013, when the administration would become the first in Pakistan to complete a full five-year term.
The president, deeply unpopular among ordinary Pakistanis and nicknamed Mr 10 Per cent for alleged corruption, cancelled a visit to Russia to convene emergency talks with legal experts and party bosses to resolve the crisis.
The Supreme Court verdict was followed in hours by an announcement from the election commission that Gilani had been dismissed as an MP.
Senior PPP members also appealed for calm, a sign that the party preferred to elect a new prime minister than contest the court ruling.
Analysts warned it would be impossible to get parliament to overturn the court's decision without the support of the main opposition PML-N party.
“This is a destabilising move. It is a kind of judicial coup. First the military used to carry out coups and now it's the judiciary which has overthrown a prime minister,” said political analyst Hasan Askari.
The cases against Zardari date to the 1990s, when he and his late wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, are suspected of using Swiss banks to launder $12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs contracts.
The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became president.