Pakistan's new PM

Yousaf Raza Gilani is sworn in as Pakistan's new prime minister by the very president he wants to displace
Kanishk Tharoor
26 March 2008

Pervez Musharraf yesterday swore in the fifth prime minister to take office during his tenure as president of Pakistan. This one may very well be the last. While Pakistan's last four prime minister have been little more than parliamentary puppets, the election of Yousaf Raza Gilani poses a real challenge to the imbalance of presidential power that has allowed Musharraf to hold sway over Pakistani politics since 1999.

The new ruling coalition holds the president in public contempt. Soon after he was sworn in - in a ceremony boycotted by leaders of the ruling parties (the Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, and Awami National Party) - Gilani made it clear that he wouldn't let Musharraf dictate proceedings anymore. Speaking of the immense challenges that lay ahead, Gilani promised "to give supremacy to the Parliament so that we can jointly take the country out of these crises."

Elections in February proved devastating for Musharraf and his allies, with the PPP and PML-N sweeping to power on the back of an anti-Musharraf campaign. The ceremonial boycott, in which major leaders like Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, and the Pashtun nationalist Asfandyar Wali Khan participated, confirms that the new parliament under Gilani's premiership will seek to undermine or even directly challenge Musharraf's presidency. The beleaguered president's position is not helped by the distancing act of his army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who recently relieved two senior generals thought to be close to Musharraf.

Like many of the PPP's leaders, Gilani hails from an influential, land-holding family in the southeast of the country, continuing the Pakistani tradition of feudal, dynastic prime ministers. He held prominent positions in both of Benazir Bhutto's governments - the first as a cabinet minister and the second as speaker of the parliament. He also served a five-year jail term for alleged corruption offences from 2001, a charge which he and his allies maintain was entirely politically motivated. It's no secret that the centre of gravity of the PPP remains with Zardari, and that Gilani may simply be keeping the PM seat warm for the widower of the martyred Benazir.

With a change of the guard in offing, Washington's warm relationship with Islamabad is set too cool. Pakistanis bristled at the ill-timed visits of two senior state department officials this week, whose trip coincided with Gilani's election as prime ministerr. Musharraf's party suffered heavily in the polls in part because of the president's willingness to toe the American line and open up a front of the "war on terrorism" in Pakistan.

Deputy secretary of state John Negroponte and assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher received a frosty reception in meetings with the new prime minister, Sharif and Zardari. Sharif accused the US of turning Pakistan into a "killing field", while in a phone conversation with President George W Bush, Gilani insisted that "Pakistan would continue to fight terrorism in all its forms", but would take a more "comprehensive approach... combining a political approach with development programs." The alternately laissez-faire or bludgeoning efforts under Musharraf in the restive northwest of the country look to be on their way out. Pakistan may be in store for a change in both style and substance.

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