In this picture dated on August 19, 2010 President Zardari walks with Salman Taseer in Jampur.—AFP

ISLAMABAD/KARACHI: President Asif Ali Zardari faces a daunting task of finding a suitable replacement for the slain Punjab Governor Salman Taseer as the PML-N appears to have decided to oust PPP ministers from the coalition government in the province.

Pakistan Muslim League-N chief Nawaz Sharif issued the threat to the People’s Party precisely at the time the tough-talking Taseer fell to an assassin’s bullets.

Mr Taseer, who gave a tough time to the Shahbaz Sharif-led Punjab government, could not get an opportunity this time to salvage his party from a serious crisis that it faces, leaving the PPP and President Zardari in a difficult position.

There is no doubt that the PPP, which has been struggling to strengthen its footing in Punjab, depended on Mr Taseer because of his close contacts with the PML-Q and other anti-PML-N forces.

The governor’s murder is a serious blow to the party and its aspirations in Punjab.

Analysts say the appointment of new governor will be a real test for President Zardari who was praised as a “shrewd man” even by the slain governor in a recent TV interview.

Soon after an announcement by the Presidency that the new governor would be nominated after the three-day mourning, the media started speculating on various names.

The analysts believe that the appointment will determine whether the PPP will adopt a policy of reconciliation or opt for direct confrontation with the PML-N.

Besides Mr Taseer, federal Parliamentary Affairs Minister Babar Awan had been strongly hitting back at the PML-N in response to its verbal attacks on the PPP and President Zardari and his name is being widely mentioned in the media and political circles as a front-runner.

Mr Awan calls the Punjab government ‘Takht-i-Lahore’, criticising the ‘imperial style’ of the Sharif brothers.

But if the PPP chooses Mr Awan it will face a big problem because it will lose a seat in the Senate where it has already been reduced to a minority.

The same is the case with other strong contenders such as the party’s secretary-general Jahangir Badr, Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, all of whom are members of parliament.

In view of the prevailing complex political scenario, the PPP may not be able to retain the vacant seat in by-elections.

A plus point for both Mr Badr and Mr Qureshi is that they are well aware of the political realities in the province and can adopt an aggressive as well as conciliatory approach towards the PML-N.

Mr Qureshi was the provincial PPP chief during the 2008 elections.

Another person whose name is in circulation for the governor’s post is Qasim Zia, another former provincial party chief and a close relative of Mr Taseer.

However, political experts say he may not be able to deal with a possible PML-N onslaught because he has no experience of politics at the national level.

The names of former senator Sardar Latif Khosa and former governor Khawaja Tariq Rahim, known as KTR, are also being mentioned.

PPP’s leaders said the party was yet to start consultations for the appointment because it was in a state of shock.

A senior party leader from Punjab, however, said President Zardari could give a surprise to political pundits through his choice of the new governor.

Mr Taseer was shot dead by his guard on Tuesday when his classmate at Lahore’s St Anthony School and arch rival in politics Nawaz Sharif was announcing that the PML-N would throw the PPP out of the coalition government in the province if Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani did not categorically accept his 10-point ‘reforms agenda’.

Analysts are of the opinion that the assassination will affect the momentum of another aggressive campaign against the PPP for the time being, but both parties will be on a warpath in the near future because of the fast changing political situation.

ACROMONIOUS ENVIRONMENT According to sources, the president will hold formal consultations with PPP’s leaders in a day or two because the party cannot afford to leave the post with the acting governor (the Punjab assembly speaker) for a long time.

In fact, the sources said, an informal exchange of views was already under way.

When asked whether the president had started consultations on the appointment, his spokesman Farhatullah Babar said: “We have to wait for a while. It is still mourning period and the selection will involve consideration of many factors relevant to present political realties.”

When asked specifically about Mr Taseer’s probable successors, including the prominent leader of the lawyers’ movement, Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, he declined to make a comment.

During Mr Taseer’s days, the Governor’s House in Lahore had become the virtual bastion of PPP in countering PML-N’s pressure.

Babar Awan’s outbursts against the PML-N leadership over the past months and his efforts to mend fences with the PML-Q make him the most likely choice because of the verbosity and grit he possesses to deal with the prevailing situation.

But sources say that Mr Kaira also cannot be ruled out because of his role in the new set-up in Gilgit-Baltistan and President Zardari’s liking for him.

But the selection of Barrister Ahsan may be taken as offering an olive branch to the PML-N to gain its support for saving the present set-up, the sources said. Jahangir Badr belongs to the same category.

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