With President Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani – the two people who held the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) together for the last five years – out of active politics, the charge to lead the next election campaign has fallen on to the shoulders of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf.

For most politicians within and outside the PPP, the change in roles and duties has been fast and unexpected.

Mr Zardari has been barred by the Supreme Court from politicking while in office, while Mr Gilani, the vice-chairman of the PPP, is lost in political wilderness ever since he was disqualified from contesting elections for five years.

In view of the changes, according to a top PPP source, Mr Ashraf has been asked to focus more on politics by Mr Zardari, and so he will be using most of his remaining time in the Prime Minister's Secretariat to campaign for the next general elections. He has till March 17 to do all possible because on that day the charge will be handed over to the caretaker set-up to conduct elections within 60 days just as the current assemblies complete their five-year term.

About his original job as chief executive of the country, the PPP source commented: “Mr Ashraf fills in the role when and where required, otherwise, it’s on auto-pilot mode with President Zardari the captain of the plane.”

Another PPP leader told Dawn that a series of meetings have taken place in recent weeks both at the Prime Minister’s Secretariat and the Presidency on how to approach the general elections.

In the first leg, the source said, it has been decided that Mr Ashraf would address rallies throughout the country.

Hence, every week in the month of December has PM Ashraf making a public address: on December 8, he will be in Faisalabad (Punjab), December 16 he will be in Haripur (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), December 22 in Fatehjang (Punjab) and on January 5 in Chakwal, near his home constituency of Gujar Khan.

At a time, when the country is facing serious threats from the Taliban and other extremist forces, “there will be stringent security measures, which of course will not be possible when we are out of the government. Hence, the prime minister of the day as a chief guest, always carries an added advantage,” remarked the PPP leader.

The PM has also instructed his staff to give priority to meetings with sitting as well as potential lawmakers. And hardly a day passes when the media wing of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat doesn't release handouts of his meetings with other politicians.

When enquired whether other party leaders were happy with Mr Ashraf leading the election campaign, the PPP source said, “Many in the party had objected to his election as Prime Minister after Mr Gilani was sent home by the Supreme Court but they remain unaddressed. For right or wrong reasons, Mr Ashraf has been given this new role to lead the party as a sitting prime minister.”

Indeed, Mr Ashraf’s rise in the ranks closely resembles the political rise of his benefactor Mr Zardari.

In terms of power and influence, Mr Ashraf was a virtual political non-entity as the federal minister for information technology.

His popularity had taken a sharp dip earlier for his alleged role as minister for power in the rental power projects, under investigation by the National Accountability Bureau.

In fact, his nomination as a premier by Mr Zardari was once described as “a phoenix rising from the ashes.”

Meanwhile, under the new Code of Conduct introduced by the Election Commission, public office holders are barred from taking part in election campaign. But that clause only comes in to effect once the schedule of general elections is formally announced.

“Until then, there is no such restriction on the sitting prime minister or ministers from addressing public rallies or gatherings,” said an official of the Election Commission on the request of anonymity.

“It is clearly understood that these public meetings are basically meant to prepare ground for next general elections, however, under the existing laws we cannot take any action,” he added.

It’s been a good innings for the lowly rated President Zardari and it remains to be seen if PM Ashraf comes up to his expectations as the cheerleader for the PPP in coming general elections, and lands the party another five year term in the government. khawar.ghumman@gmail.com

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