ISLAMABAD: After a full day of twists and turns and meetings and phone calls, which provided Islamabad the chance to indulge in its favourite activity — speculation — Raja Pervez Ashraf managed to scrape past the finishing line and end up as the ruling party’s designate for the post of prime minister.
The high drama, which ended on Thursday night, began late on Wednesday night. Shortly after one, the state-run television broke the news that President Asif Ali Zardari had decided on Makhdoom Shahabuddin as the PPP’s new prime minister-designate and Raja Pervez Ashraf, the former water and power man, as the latter’s covering candidate.
The names were obviously made public with a wink and a nod from the men at the top of the government. In fact, there was a point of view that the information was made public to gauge reaction.
That there was going to be an adverse reaction was perhaps rightly expected; on Wednesday morning a newspaper had reported — out of the proverbial blue — that Makhdoom Shahabuddin was allegedly involved in the famous ephedrine scandal that had already threatened to take down the prime minister’s son and principal secretary.
It is perhaps now safe to say that both these developments ensured that the Makhdoom probably experienced his best and worst moment on the same day. As the news channels were reporting how he presented his papers for the election of the prime minister, along came the news that his arrest warrants had been obtained by the Anti-Narcotics Force, which is run by military men.
Apart from the Makhdoom, the PPP was delivered a second shock within the same week – it had just lost its prime minister on Tuesday to a court decision.
The party went into another huddle. Shortly afterwards came the news that c had also submitted his papers for the impending election as did the report that Mr Ashraf would be the party’s candidate instead of Shahabuddin. However, nothing was said officially or with finality.
The whole country was kept guessing. And what added to the uncertainty was the back and forth between the various political parties which gained momentum, adding to the sense that the situation was fluid – fluid enough to even lend credence to those who predicted the end of the system.The PML-N announced its candidate formally while also making it clear that their final goal was the next election; the party chief, Nawaz Sharif, said that if their candidate won, his first act would be to announce fresh elections.
But more than the PML-N, it was Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s decision to jump into the prime ministerial fray that had caused pulses to race – and not in a positive manner.
The Maulana, who has never lost his image of being a friend to the khaki establishment and who has also maintained good relations with President Zardari, submitted his papers to contest the race. Had he deserted the sinking PPP ship and sided with the all-time winners? The answer was not clear even though he spent most of the evening talking to various news channels in vague terms about the threats to democracy.
The uncertainty, coupled with the sense of panic afflicting the PPP, was enough to create a sense of déjà vu – a repeat of hushed whispers and gossip galore about the PPP being sent home and fresh elections being called. This mood has often descended upon Islamabad at times of crisis such as during the days of the memogate affair.
The PPP leaders who came out from meetings and made it to talk shows spoke of conspiracies and threats to the system while those who were too busy to step outside sent text messages suggesting Armageddon – one such text spoke of the “Byzantine intrigues of the deep state… [which were never] fought back with such tenacity”. Journalists roared on television about technocratic governments being formed and imposed on the people.
However, the only fighting back that the PPP did was no different from what it has done earlier – call a meeting of its allies and ask for unqualified support. And though there were rumours galore about which party rejected Mr Ashraf and which party refused to accept Mr Kaira, and what the MQM had demanded in exchange for support, the meeting at the presidency ended before midnight with a tame announcement – all allies had agreed to support the PPP and that the party would announce its candidate at eleven in the morning (today), though participants of the meeting confirmed that Mr Ashraf of the rental power fame had won the coveted spot.
But as the formal announcement was still withheld, observers pointed out that with the PPP and President Zardari being what they are and their invisible enemies being what they are, there was still a small chance that Mr Kaira may be nominated on Friday morning. After all, the president could have a last-minute change of heart or Mr Ashraf’s chances are scuttled as were Mr Shahabuddin’s on Thursday morning.
Nonetheless, two things were pretty clear on Thursday night. One that the allies had already or will claim their pound of flesh for coming to the PPP’s rescue at such a critical moment.
Second, that Mr Ashraf’s choice may not go down well because of the power shortage and the subsequent riots in Punjab. “Raja Rental”, as he is popularly known, is associated in popular imagination with incompetence and corruption. His incompetent handling of the power sector in the first half of this government’s tenure has not been forgotten (despite his successor’s lacklustre performance) and for his alleged corruption in the infamous rental power projects, about which the nation was promised that it would end all energy woes, but achieved nothing.