Pakistan's New Prime Minister?

As the victors of Monday's Pakistani elections continued to discuss who would lead their coalition in parliament, party insiders tell NEWSWEEK that the choice will most likely be veteran politician Makhdoom Amin Fahim. "It's almost a done deal," says an official from the Pakistan People's Party who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the information. The PPP, led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto until her assassination in late December, won the most seats in the national assembly and thus has the prerogative to name the premier. Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, whose party ran second, has agreed to support the choice.

Fahim, 68, almost became prime minister in 2002. Only his loyalty to Bhutto kept him from running the government. Back then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was scrambling to find coalition partners to bolster his own jerry-built party. He offered the top job to Fahim, who then as now was vice chairman of the PPP, but only under the condition that Fahim would not take direction from Bhutto, who was in exile. Fahim flatly refused. During her nine long years abroad, Bhutto knew she could rely on her fellow landowner from southern Sindh Province to be a trusted adviser and executor of her plans on the ground. Her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who is now the PPP's co-chairman, is counting on the same fidelity.

Fahim is renowned for his complete lack of charisma. But he has a reputation for being able to work with others and get things done. And most important for both Zardari and Sharif, Fahim is not personally ambitious. If he were he would have succumbed to the many offers and veiled threats over the years to join Musharraf. Fahim says he has no regrets. He is a complex, well-rounded man of seemingly contradictory traits. The scion of a landed feudal family, his father was a Sufi spiritual leader (the "pir of Hala") and one of the founders in 1969 of the populist PPP, along with Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Although a landed gentleman and a locally venerated "pir," or Sufi saint (an inherited mantle), Fahim is a totally secular, moderate, pragmatic social democrat as well as a mystic poet. He has a squeaky-clean reputation, which is unusual for a Pakistani politician.

Zardari cannot say the same thing. Nicknamed "Mr. Ten Percent" for the alleged kickbacks he received while Bhutto was in power, he served eight years in jail on corruption charges. (He denies the charges and has not been convicted.) He did not run for the assembly himself, preferring to remain abroad and look after the children while his wife campaigned and led the party. And at least for now he's made it clear that he does not want to be prime minister. Party insiders say he realizes he could be too divisive a figure. But he can rest assured that Fahim will follow the party line that Zardari will largely lay down. Perhaps as important an asset as Fahim's personal loyalty and political savvy is the fact that he is widely trusted by "the establishment," the name Pakistanis give to the powerful nexus of the military, top bureaucrats and influential businessmen. The same cannot be said for Zardari.

Fahim is doubtless comfortable with the fact that he won't be calling the shots and that he may not last all of the national assembly's five-year tenure. He knows he may be serving largely to keep the seat warm for Zardari, who may want to replace him once the coalition is more firmly established. Zardari is certain to run for, and win, an assembly seat in a by-election in the next few months, putting him in a position to become prime minister.

The choice of Fahim is largely good news for Washington. He is pro-West and favors close military and economic ties with the United States. But just like Zardari and Sharif and a vast majority of Pakistanis, he believes that Pakistan has to recalibrate its relationship with Washington and its strategy of confronting extremists in the lawless tribal areas. The new civilian leadership has expressed greater interest in a diplomatic approach to tribal leaders, well aware that Musharraf's military strategy along the border is widely thought of as an American imposition.

Thus far Zardari has shown less appetite for confronting Musharraf directly than Sharif has. Their coalition lacks the two-thirds majority needed to impeach the president. But they have agreed to let the parliament decide whether to restore the supreme court justices dismissed by Musharraf last fall when he imposed a state of emergency; most observers expect that the restored judges would declare that Musharraf's re-election, which occurred under the state of emergency, was illegal. Knowing the stakes, Musharraf is in no hurry to convene parliament. He's expected to drag his feet for the next two to three weeks or more in the hope of engineering some divide in the freshly minted coalition. Meanwhile Zardari, Sharif and Fahim will be doing everything they can to fend off any moves to destabilize them.

Pakistan's New Prime Minister? | World