Pakistan crisis: Raja Ashraf named new PM candidate

File photo of Raja Pervez Ashraf
Image caption Mr Ashraf faces a difficult job, if elected

Pakistan's ruling party has replaced its nominee for prime minister after a judge ordered the arrest of President Asif Ali Zardari's preferred candidate.

Former Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf is now set to become prime minister. Voting is under way in parliament.

First-choice candidate Makhdoom Shahabuddin is wanted over illegal drug imports while he was health minister.

Pakistan has been without a government since Yousuf Raza Gilani was removed from office on Tuesday.

The move was part of a long-running and bitter feud between the government and the Supreme Court.

Observers say Pakistan can ill-afford its constitutional in-fighting - the country's economy is in crisis, as are relations with the US, and militants are waging a violent insurgency in tribal areas near the Afghan border.

"Raja Pervez Ashraf is our final nominee," senior Pakistan People's Party (PPP) member Khurshid Shah told a news conference on Friday after hours of speculation over a switch in candidates.

Mr Ashraf emerged as the likely next PM after high drama on Thursday which saw a judge issue a warrant for Mr Shahabuddin's arrest as he was filing his nomination papers.

Three other candidates are also standing for the post of prime minister. One, Qamar Zaman Kaira, is also a PPP member. The other two are Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam (JUI-F) leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan Abbasi from the PML-N party of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.

The governing coalition has the numbers in parliament to win the vote. General elections are due by early next year.

Sleaze row

As with many politicians in Pakistan, the PPP's new choice to lead the government into elections also faces controversy.

He has been dogged by allegations of corruption relating to power projects when he was water and power minister. He denies the charges.

But even if Mr Ashraf does become prime minister, he is likely to face the same Supreme Court demand as Mr Gilani for the launch of a corruption inquiry into Mr Zardari.

It was Mr Gilani's refusal to do so that led to his conviction for contempt in April and his disqualification from public office two months later. He argued the president had immunity from prosecution.

The charges against President Zardari date back to the 1990s when his late wife Benazir Bhutto was prime minister. They were accused of using Swiss bank accounts to launder bribe money.

President Zardari has always insisted the charges against him are politically motivated.

The BBC's Aleem Maqbool in Islamabad says Mr Ashraf is being seen as something of a sacrificial lamb.

The fact that he too has a corruption scandal hanging over him is for many irrelevant, our correspondent says - they see a judiciary that is now hell bent on bringing down President Zardari's Pakistan People's Party.

The PPP's main aim, correspondents say, is to see out its full five-year term, which would be a first for a civilian government in a country ruled by the military for more than half its history.

Some observers believe the PPP could benefit electorally if voters perceive it to have been persecuted by the judges and the powerful military.