Middle East

Pakistan lawmakers set to pick former petroleum minister Abbasi as PM

Former petroleum minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is poised to become Pakistan’s new prime minister in a parliamentary vote on Tuesday, just days after the ouster of veteran leader Nawaz Sharif, as the ruling party aims to project stability.

A quick transition should ease fears that the nuclear-armed nation would be plunged into another bout of political instability, which could erode economic and security gains since the last poll in 2013.

Sharif resigned on Friday after the Supreme Court disqualified him for not declaring a source of income – which the three-time premier disputes receiving. He nominated staunch ally Abbasi as interim leader until his brother, Shahbaz, becomes eligible to take over, probably within two months.

Sharif’s PML-N party won elections in 2013 and holds a majority of 188 seats in the 342-member National Assembly, so it should be able to swiftly install its choice of prime minister, barring defections from its own ranks.

The vote is expected soon after parliament meets at 3 p.m. (1000 GMT).

“The prime objective is to give Pakistan stability,” said Rana Muhammad Afzal Khan, a PML-N lawmaker in the national assembly. “As a responsible party we have to take Pakistan ahead.”

But the plan to eventually install Shahbaz has also sparked anger among supporters of opposition leader Imran Khan, who has criticized another bout of dynastic politics, a trend with a long history in Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia.

Khan, who agitated with street protests until the Supreme Court took up a corruption case against Sharif, has called the family a “monarchy” and accused it of trying to turn the country into a personal fiefdom.

Shahbaz, now chief minister of the vast eastern province of Punjab home to more than half of Pakistan’s 190 million people, will have to resign and fight a parliamentary by-election before he can take over as prime minister.

His aides say he is likely to usher in a new personal style of government, while probably continuing his brother’s focus on huge infrastructure projects and policies favoring business.

Western-educated Abbasi, who started his career as a businessman, has spent most of his political life by Sharif’s side. He was jailed after Pakistan’s powerful military staged a coup in 1999 to topple a previous Sharif government.

As minister of petroleum and natural resources in Sharif’s last cabinet, he championed Pakistan’s push to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) infrastructure and alleviate crippling energy shortages.

The LNG push has attracted foreign companies, who now see Pakistan as one of the world’s fastest-growing markets, having initially paid it little attention. Growth will increase fivefold, Abbasi told Reuters last month.

The opposition has also accused Abbasi of corruption over the bidding for an LNG deal in the southern port city of Karachi, citing a National Accountability Bureau (NAB) inquiry case filed in 2015 that alleges procurement irregularities.

The NAB case has made little progress and Abbasi has denied any wrongdoing, with PML-N allies saying the opposition wants to detract from the success of the LNG effort.

A senior Pakistani gas official said one of the two bidders for the contract was disqualified by British consultants hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), leaving a clear winner. The rejected bidder’s price was also higher, the official added.

In Pakistan’s rough-and-tumble politics, charges of corruption against leading politicians are common and several figures, including opposition leader Khan, face court cases.

Besides ordering Sharif’s removal, the Supreme Court also ordered a criminal investigation into him and his family, as well as Finance Minister Ishaq Dar.

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