PolEcReMo. My Take

Shah Mahmood Qureshi the new Prime Minister?

Posted in Politics by Ali Athar on May 1, 2009

While the whole nation is resorting to conspiracy theories to explain even the most basic things, let me also speculate about an important event that is about to happen. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, our Foreign Minister, might get the slot for Prime Minister of Pakistan in place of the incumbent Yusuf Raza Gilani. So, why I say that? Please read on.

The successful completion of the lawyers’ “Long March” and the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has severly detrimented the political standing of President Asif Ali Zardari. He was let down by his advisers like Governor Salmaan Taseer and Interior Adviser Rehman Malik into believing that the lawyers pose no threat and that even the support of Nawaz Sharif won’t muster enough street power to force the government to restore the CJ. But, massive popularity (at least in the urban Punjab) for Iftikhar Chaudhry forced the government to restore him. This reduced the popularity graph of the President, but at the same time enhanced the image of PM Gilani who was constantly portrayed by media as doing the right thing (restore the CJ, allying with PML-N), but unable to accomplish it because of forces beyond him (the presidency?). In fact, it was also reported by the media that PM Gilani opposed the Governor’s rule in Punjab and wanted to restore Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif as soon as possible. Hence, what was happening was that all the good things were being attributed to the PM, and all the bad things were being pointed to the President.

Then, there is the issue of PM Gilani asserting himself to the detriment of President Zardari. According to newspaper reports, Gilani sided with Gen Ashfaq Kayani to restore the CJ and CM Shahbaz Sharif. He also sacked Maj Gen Mahmud Ali Durrani, the National Security Adviser, for not consulting him prior to leaking the identity of Ajmal Kasab. This episode was a snub for Zardari, as he was the one who hired Durrani at the first place and wanted to see him around longer. Gilani also appears closer to the Sharif brothers and the PML-N mitigating the traditional rivalry between the two parties that has been the bane of voters for the last two decades. It has been along these lines that two parties extract votes from the populace and Gilani is trying to dilute them. So in short, Zardari is unhappy with Gilani and he can argue with the party that why Gilani has to removed as the PM.

But first, Zardari needs to gain the political capital he lost in the CJ/CM episode. Recently, he called the editors and columnists of major newspapers to the presidency and explained to them his position. They have been writing positive articles about him since. Next he needs to remove the advisers that are political liabilities for him. (The recent editorial of The News mentions Taseer being removed). And then, Zardari will go for checkmate. He will remove Gilani and appoint Shah Mahmood Qureshi as the new Prime Minister.

Why Qureshi? Because Qureshi is urbane, suave minister from Multan who is the current Foreign Minister (next in line only to the Prime Minister). He is perhaps the only PPP leader to have the support of the so-called liberal/secular elite of Pakistan. His political views are much in line with Zardari’s; like war on terrorism, tackling the financial burden through IMF and Friends of Pakistan, and normalizing relations with India and Afghanistan, etc. Moreover, Qureshi is a new entrant to PPP, only being nominated as President PPP Punjab in 2006. Therefore, he will not have created a big following within the party, unlike Gilani who has been PPP’s vice chairman since 1998 and despite 5 years of incarceration, he didn’t buy his way out of jail and so will retain a larger following. Therefore, Qureshi can’t be a nuisance to Zardari as Gilani could be. And last but not the least, Qureshi’s performance as the Foreign Minister has been exemplary. His dealings with India after the Mumbai attacks made headlines and his performace vis-a-vis America¬† has been appreciable. Therefore, Zardari can build his case in front of the people about this change.

So why this is about to happen now? Recently Qureshi was in Multan building the case for war on terror and appealing for national consensus and political stability – not the most critical statements for a Foreign Minister. And Qureshi was also present in the high-powered meeting of the President, PM, COAS and ANP chief to discuss the challenges of militancy in Swat and FATA. It seems that Qureshi has more on his plate than a usual Foreign Minister.

I would say that Shah Mahmood Qureshi is definately on the move. If not the PM now, we would surely see him there once before the current government dissolves.