Pakistan Elections: A New Face

Washington can expect to get along reasonably well with Pakistan's next prime minister. The Pakistan People's Party, the dominant partner in the newly elected ruling coalition, has chosen the eminently trusted politician Makhdoom Amin Fahim for the job, according to a PPP official who asked not to be named prior to the official announcement. Fahim, 68, is notoriously lacking in charisma, but he does have a demonstrated ability to get things done. Better yet, he possesses an attribute that makes him a rarity among the country's senior politicians: an immaculate reputation for honesty. And he's known to favor close military and economic ties with the United States.

Like most other Pakistanis, though, he's convinced his country needs to recalibrate its relationship with Washington—particularly regarding America's aggressive strategy against extremists on the Afghan border. Blaming the former Army chief, President Pervez Musharraf, for taking a disastrous course in the tribal areas, the new civilian leaders think they can do better by negotiating with tribal elders.

Fahim has shown before what he thinks of Musharraf. Back in 2002 the president, urgently seeking partners for his own jerry-built party, tried to recruit the PPP vice chairman as prime minister, asking only that Fahim not take direction from the PPP's exiled leader at the time, Benazir Bhutto. Fahim refused. Late last week he told party associates that the offer was made and rejected a total of four times.

Fahim says he has no regrets. Personal ambition doesn't seem to be what drives him—which is one reason the ambitious party heads are trusting him with the job. Bhutto's widower, PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, may be planning his own bid to step in as prime minister after stability returns. In any case, Zardari is counting on Fahim to hasten that return. Like the late Bhutto, Fahim is the scion of a landed feudal family in southern Sindh. His father was a locally venerated Sufi holy man, the Pir of Hala, and a founder of the populist PPP with Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Fahim in fact retains the Sufi title of pir, which he inherited from his father. Nevertheless he's a thoroughly secular, moderate and pragmatic social democrat. He writes mystic poetry on the side.

Will Fahim change course in the tribal areas? Washington's top ranks seem unworried about what the new civilian leaders might decide. "We're going to let them have their rounds of discussions," says a senior administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record. "We still expect the [Pakistani] Army is going to take the necessary military action." Count on an interesting transition.