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LAHORE, May 15: The hair-raising political mystery unfolding in the country took another twist on Thursday when the Pakistan Muslim League-N reacted angrily to the nomination of controversial Salman Taseer as the new governor of all important Punjab. The Pakistan People’s Party explained by saying that it had agreed to Taseer’s selection after getting his name cleared from a couple of PML-N’s leaders.

“Taseer’s nomination is part of a conspiracy being hatched in the presidency,” fired PML-N’s Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan at a press conference here, leaving everyone bracing for what could turn out to be a decisive battle for control that pits President Pervez Musharraf against Mian Mohammad Nawaz Sharif and Co, with Asif Zardari and his PPP occupying an unenviable position somewhere in the middle.

Salman Taseer, who has variously been called a chartered accountant, a PPP stalwart, a media baron and a businessman who specialised in finding Gulf money for profitable ventures in Pakistan, is most significantly known for his pro-Musharraf views and is indeed reported to have called on the president at his camp office on Thursday.

Taseer, who is scheduled to take oath as governor on Friday, has been frequently heard on television taking Nawaz Sharif to task and the newspapers under his command have been advocating a ‘liberal’ set-up in the country chiefly comprising President Musharraf and the PPP. The announcement that he is to replace Lt-Gen (retd) Khalid Maqbool as the governor of Punjab was expected to spell trouble for a PPP-PML-N coalition that was already reeling from Nawaz Sharif’s decision to pull back his ministers from the federal cabinet over the issue of judges’ restoration.

The PPP leadership tried to downplay the significance of the appointment, and its spokesman Farhatullah Babar gave the impression as if the PML-N had been taken into confidence ahead of the announcement. “Asif Ali Zardari had not only taken Khawaja Asif into confidence on the move, but had also got it cleared with the Punjab chief minister,” he told reporters in Islamabad.

But Khawaja Asif was quick to reject the suggestion that he had been taken into confidence. Instead, he said Salman Taseer’s name was mentioned by Mr Zardari during an informal meeting with him on Wednesday, and he had informed him of PML-N’s reservations.

The PPP’s clarification notwithstanding, the strong PML-N rejection of Taseer appeared to be setting the stage for a battle in which Zardari would be hard pressed to retain his so-called neutrality.

At the press conference here, Chaudhry Nisar said Taseer’s appointment as governor was a prelude to a horse-trading plan that “had been prepared in the presidency”. He didn’t suspect that Punjab was on its way to something as drastic as governor’s rule. Yet his tone suggested that PML-N was not averse to up the ante and was prepared to ask tough question of its coalition partner, the PPP. He implied that Salman Taseer’s nomination as governor couldn’t have come without PPP’s nod and asked the mediamen to put the same question to Zardari and his party colleagues.

It was anything but a remark made in the heat of the moment. The PML-N took its time responding to Salman Taseer’s nomination. The news was making the rounds in Islamabad and Lahore the night before and was reported in many newspapers on Thursday. But while the press corps waited impatiently, the expected attack spearheaded by Chaudhry Nisar came after 5pm. This gave the PML-N leaders plenty of time to deliberate upon how they wanted to approach the new challenge thrown their way ‘by the president’.

The earlier part of the day was ostensibly taken up by celebrations following the acceptance of nomination papers of Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif. The papers were accepted after returning officers in Lahore rejected observations raised against the Sharifs’ candidature. Here he was a clear beneficiary of the change of government, as for the February 18 elections the returning officer, operating under President Musharraf’s appointed caretaker set-up, had allowed the same objections in order to reject Mr Sharif’s papers.

Nawaz’s lawyer, Naseer Ahmed Bhutta, surprised some when he said that if the need arose the PML-N leader was prepared to fight for his right to contest the election in a court. Another PML-N leader, Siddiq Al Farooq, put the court’s decision down to the lessening of pressure on judges -- contrary to what the situation was like when both Nawaz and Shahbaz were barred from contesting seats in the Feb 18 general election.

Then, they decided against moving the court over the ban, resolving that they were not to appear before judges sworn under the Provisional Constitution Order of Nov 2007.

The change of heart on Nawaz Sharif’s part may have emanated from a growing realisation within the PML-N that he could have a better shot at power from within the parliament. When the Sharifs refrained from challenging the ban before the general election, they may not have been sure of winning the number of seats that they actually went on to win.

The proverbial observer was found gasping for ideas and vision in the wake of the two latest developments which pointed to two opposite scenarios. All three key players -- Nawaz Sharif, who played host to the American ambassador at his Raiwind home on the day, Asif Zardari and President Pervez Musharraf -- preferred to stay backstage, resisting pressure to spell it out for a bemused and puzzled audience.