ISLAMABAD, June 22: Propelled by a dramatic turn of events, Raja Pervez Ashraf was elected prime minister by a big majority of the National Assembly on Friday to oversee a daunting last phase of the PPP-led government, which began with the main opposition party cold-shouldering his olive branch.

In a policy speech after winning the vote 211-89, he offered dialogue to opposition parties to tackle national problems, including the prevailing energy crisis, in pursuing what he called the philosophy of reconciliation of assassinated leader of his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Benazir Bhutto.

“To solve these problems, I invite the opposition for talks,” he said. “I hope the opposition will consider and accept this invitation.”

But Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N, who lost the contest with 89 votes, said his party could discuss a pending accountability bill for an early passage by parliament and called for new elections “within a few coming months”, apparently disregarding Mr Ashraf’s call for a dialogue on other issues.

Mr Ashraf’s election for the remaining nine months of a five-year term of the coalition government came only three days after a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court disqualified Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister on the ground of a previous contempt-of-court conviction.

The PPP had first named former textile industry minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin as its main candidate to fill in the vacancy while Mr Ashraf and former information and broadcasting minister Qamar Zaman Kaira filed their nominations as covering, or backup, candidates.

But a virtual ambush by the army-led Anti-Narcotics Force, which has had problems with the PPP government in recent months, in issuing non-bailable arrest warrants for one-time health minister in an alleged drug import scandal, came as a mortal blow to Mr Shahabuddin’s candidacy, forcing the PPP to pick up Mr Ashraf from the two backup candidates to avoid the embarrassment of putting up one who could be arrested even before the vote.

Mr Shahabuddin came to the house to cast his vote for his substitute after getting an interim bail earlier in the day from as far as Peshawar High Court.

Slogans of “Jeay Bhutto” (long live Bhutto) — referring to PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — rang through the house and some visitors’ galleries after Speaker Fehmida Mirza announced the result of the open vote taken through what is known as division in which lawmakers record their votes for their preferred candidates in separate registers.

To cheers from the ruling coalition benches, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of the eight-seat Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, withdrew from the contest, as did Mr Shahabuddin and Mr Kaira, from the contest, which was followed by speeches of the two contestants before the newly-elected prime minister and prospective members of his cabinet drove to the nearby presidential palace to be sworn in by President Asif Ali Zardari.

The five-year tenures of the present federal and four provincial governments will run out in late March next year when a caretaker set-up will come into being to oversee the next general election.

But speculation has been rife whether Mr Ashraf will be able to exhaust the remaining nine months of the federal government if, like Mr Gilani, he is asked by the Supreme Court to write to Swiss authorities to reopen disputed money-laundering charges against President Zardari. The PPP says any PPP premier will refuse to do it as did Mr Gilani.

In his speech, Mr Ashraf pledged loyalty to the legacy of his predecessor, which he said was marked by landmark constitutional amendments and strengthening of democratic institutions, and added: “I will not tell torch transferred to me to be dimmed.”

He said it was the duty of political parties to “move democracy and democratic process forward”. The new premier cited “seeking solution to the problems” of insurgency-hit Balochistan as his first priority and, acknowledging “excesses” done to the Baloch people, said his government would talk to their leadership.

Other domestic priorities he mentioned included making parliament’s sovereignty a certainty in which “nobody else could usurp the power given to it by the people”, impartial and transparent elections, strengthening national institutions and not allowing confrontation between them, and promoting agriculture and industry. He appealed to “religious extremists” to surrender arms and join the “national mainstream”.

In foreign affairs, he vowed to work for promoting peaceful co-existence with neighbours, including India, further strengthening friendship with China and Islamic countries, consolidating ties with the European Union and promoting relationship with the United States “on the basis of equality”.

Mr Abbasi blamed the new premier for prevailing power shortages because of his tenure as power minister in the present government, provoking PPP chief whip Khursheed Ahmed Shah to propose the formation of a parliamentary commission to fix blame for power shortages from 1993 to 2008 and then onwards.

Later the speaker read out a presidential order proroguing the house after only a day’s special session.


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