The upheaval has complicated U.S. efforts to wind down the war in neighboring Afghanistan, contributing to Islamabad’s failure to come up with a compromise to again allow NATO supplies to pass through Pakistani territory. The routes, vital for U.S. withdrawal of a decade’s worth of materiel, have been closed for seven months.
The latest leadership crisis unfolded Thursday after an anti-narcotics court issued an arrest warrant for the official whom President Asif Ali Zardari wanted for the job — outgoing Textile Minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin, a stalwart of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
The case, which also has implicated the recently ousted prime minister’s son, involves the illegal importation of tons of ephedrine, required to manufacture methamphetamine, in 2010, when Shahabuddin was health minister.
Both men have denied the accusations. As of Thursday evening, Shahabuddin had not been arrested.
Babar Sattar, a lawyer and columnist, noted that the warrant followed a stray remark in open court this week by Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who asked — after Shahabuddin emerged as a likely nominee — why he had not been arrested in connection with the ephedrine-import scandal.
“The timing of these things makes me cynical,” Sattar said. “You also get a sense that the judiciary is taking pleasure in embarrassing the ruling regime.”
The new leading candidate for prime minister is Raja Pervez Ashraf, a former water and power minister, major cable networks reported Thursday night. Party officials would not confirm the reports, but a presidential spokesman said the ruling coalition had settled on a choice to be announced Friday morning.
As is usually the case in the murky machinations that govern Pakistani politics, the import of the narcotics warrant was unclear but widely debated. Some Pakistanis discerned mischief on the part of the military because the charges stemmed from an anti-drug agency headed by a general.
Others viewed it as another example of the judiciary muscling in on politics. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on the grounds of contempt of court after he refused for months to reopen an old corruption case against Zardari.
The ruling ousted Gilani from office, forcing the dissolution of his cabinet.
Bogus and politically motivated charges are often brought against leaders here, but the latest developments have added to the sense that Pakistan’s government is rudderless and in disarray at a time when its relationship with the United States, its chief economic patron and uneasy ally in fight against al-Qaeda, has collapsed.
In Pakistan’s 64-year-old history, its generals have taken control three times when they saw the civilian government as weak. After four years in power, the Gilani-Zardari government has failed to address severe energy shortages and inflation, triggering an economic meltdown that critics said could result in chaos.
“Previous takeovers were undertaken on much weaker excuses,” said Ayaz Amir, an opposition party lawmaker and journalist. “It’s really an open question what happens next.”
But others say the military, which enjoys considerable public support, has no appetite for intervening because it would bear the blame if economic problems were not resolved quickly. And the powerful army chief has repeatedly pledged his support for democracy.
A new prime minister is likely to face further demands by the Supreme Court to reopen the corruption case against Zardari, fueling more instability.
The near-constant uncertainty comes as U.S. officials are trying to promote a stable, credible democracy in Islamabad and develop an effective relationship with Pakistan’s fractious civilian leaders, rather than dealing exclusively with the military on foreign policy and security issues, as has been the case historically.
Pakistan’s generals have long represented “the only adults in the room” in terms of leadership, a top U.S. official said recently, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.
But Washington has shown increasing mistrust of and hostility toward Pakistan’s chief military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, which U.S. officials say shelters extremists in Pakistan’s western tribal belt and backs the Afghan Taliban in its fight against NATO forces.
Chaudhry is celebrated by many Pakistanis for taking on the ISI in missing-persons cases and for backing populist causes. But his image was tainted by allegations recently leveled by a billionaire real estate tycoon, Malik Riaz, who said Chaudhry’s son took large sums from him to prevail upon his father to rule favorably on cases against Riaz.
Chaudhry brought his son for trial before the Supreme Court, and he was cleared.
If nothing else, all the controversies point up that democracy is a messy business — and political clashes a necessary part of the development of a relatively young nation.
“There is no grand narrative that can define Pakistan right now,” Sattar said. “We are going through a huge transformation, and parts are coming off. Everyone is trying to push their limits.”
Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.