Pakistan’s New Prime Minister Faces Widespread Scorn

Raja Pervaiz Ashraf
Illustration by Emily Flake

Poor Raja Pervaiz Ashraf. Anywhere else, the prime minister would have been praised for resolving months of deadlock with an ally as important as the United States. But last week, Ashraf was met with nothing but scorn when Pakistan agreed to reopen key supply routes to Afghanistan following a U.S. apology for a NATO airstrike last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

The announcement couldn’t have come at a worse time for the 61-year-old newly elected prime minister. According to recent polls, some 74 percent of Pakistanis now view the U.S. as an enemy, while some 40 percent say American aid has had a “mostly negative” impact on their country. Capitalizing on this sentiment, several opposition parties have already criticized the government’s decision to make amends with America. And Ashraf, an amiable two-term member of Parliament, has become the convenient recipient of this wrath—despite widespread speculation that no decision on reopening the supply routes could have been made without the Army’s permission.

This is hardly the first time that Ashraf has served as a scapegoat for Pakistan’s problems. Although he is widely supported by the government’s ruling coalition, Ashraf is Pakistan’s former federal water and power minister, and has long been hated by average Pakistanis for his inability to curb the country’s crippling power outages. These chronic, nationwide blackouts have resulted in mass protests and serve as daily reminders of the government’s failure to deliver on its most basic commitments. The reaction to Ashraf can be so virulent at times that many believe his Pakistan Peoples Party may be forced to call early elections and subsequently lose influence.

What ultimately may doom Ashraf, however, is an intensifying quarrel between the government and Pakistan’s Supreme Court. As it stands, members of the court seem to dislike him. In March they declared that all power projects implemented on his watch were illegal. And because of Ashraf’s perceived loyalty to President Asif Ali Zardari, his election last month—he won 70 percent of the vote in the National Assembly—was seen by the court as a provocation, according to analysts.

The court has long wanted the government to request that Swiss authorities reopen money-laundering charges against Zardari. Last month, the justices sacked Ashraf’s predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gilani, for allegedly refusing to take such action. The court has never charged Ashraf with any crimes, but that could change on July 12 when he must formally inform the judiciary whether he intends to let the Swiss investigate the president. Meanwhile, the Lahore High Court has asked Zardari to either relinquish his post as president or give up his party’s leadership to maintain the neutrality of his office. No matter what he decides, Ashraf, the country’s 25th prime minister, could become a casualty in the process. And the government may soon be looking for prime minister No. 26.

Jahanzeb Aslam is deputy editor of Newsweek Pakistan.