Yusuf Raza Gilani was ruled ineligible for refusing to reopen corruption cases against the president, plunging the country into a new political crisis.
Whoever holds the office, now and after an election due early next year, is likely to come under similar pressure from Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who has gained notoriety by taking on Pakistan’s top politicians.
Pakistan’s three power centers – the military, civilian leadership and Supreme Court – have been maneuvering to gain a political edge, frustrating Pakistanis who want their leaders to focus on improving the economy and enraging those who blame ministers such as Ashraf for failings in the infrastructure.
The ruling Pakistan People’s Party had previously nominated the textiles minister to replace Gilani. But an anti-narcotics court issued an arrest warrant for him, undermining his bid, in a move analysts said may have been orchestrated by the military.
At stake is stability in Pakistan, a regional power seen as critical to efforts to end the Taliban insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistan also faces tensions on the diplomatic front. The country’s longstanding alliance with the United States has frequently been subject to turbulence, but relations are at their lowest point in years.
Relations deteriorated after the unilateral U.S. special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year.
Washington and Islamabad are also mired in negotiations to re-open supply lines that run through Pakistan to NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan closed them after 24 of its soldiers were killed in a cross-border NATO air attack in November.
But for ordinary Pakistanis, the latest power play has only deepened frustrations with daily hardships and what has been described as a failed state by some.
As water and power minister, Ashraf was seen by many Pakistanis as someone who had failed to ease a crippling energy crisis, which sporadically triggers violent protests.
“Ashraf would be the wrath of God on the nation,” said Muhammad Rizwan, an unemployed middle-aged man standing in the heat outside his home in the eastern city of Lahore.
Power cuts had again disabled his electric fans.
“There will be a serious crisis in every sector after he becomes prime minister,” Rizwan added.
Ashraf, who was the minister from 2008 until early this year, will likely face the same pressures as did Gilani from Chaudhry, the Supreme Court chief justice, to reopen old corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.
Thousands of corruption cases were thrown out in 2007 by an amnesty law passed under former military president Pervez Musharraf, paving the way for a return to civilian rule.
Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that agreement illegal, and ordered the re-opening of money laundering cases against Zardari that involved Swiss bank accounts.
Gilani and his government refused to obey the court’s order to write to Swiss authorities asking them to look again at those cases, arguing that Zardari had immunity as the head of state.
Pakistanis can expect more political turbulence as long as Chaudhry is chief justice.
Chaudhry became a household name in Pakistan and gained international recognition in 2007 when he stood up to then President Musharraf over his bid to hold on to power.
Since then, he has even challenged the military, which has ruled for more than half of Pakistan’s 64-year history.
Chaudhry took up cases involving allegations of kidnappings and torture of suspected Islamist militants by the military and intelligence agencies. They deny the charges.
Supporters see him as a survivor determined to fight injustice. Detractors say he pushes too far, creating a conflict between the judiciary and political leaders that threatens Pakistan’s young democracy.
“If they’ve asked one prime minister to go, how will they allow a subsequent prime minister to indulge in the same kind of disobedience and remain as prime minister?” asked legal expert Salman Raja.
Chief Justice Chaudhry came under scrutiny himself during the latest political crisis.
Real estate tycoon Malik Riaz accused Chaudhry’s son of accepting almost $3.6 million in bribes from him in exchange for favorable verdicts in cases involving his businesses. He also accused Chaudhry of knowing about the bribes and not doing anything about them until the case sparked a media frenzy.
Riaz has not presented any examples of such verdicts and Arsalan Iftikhar, the chief justice’s son, denies any wrongdoing.
Ashraf, who faced allegations of corruption during his term as water and power minister, is unlikely to boost the confidence of Pakistanis in their government. He denies any wrongdoing.
“Things will change but for the worse,” said Shoaib Ahmed, 30, a scientist at an Islamabad oil company. “That’s what happens when you replace a moderately corrupt person with a very corrupt person.”