Having already ousted one prime minister this week, Pakistan’s courts on Thursday sabotaged the appointment of a replacement by ordering the arrest of the man nominated to take up the job.
By Rob Crilly, Islamabad
The extraordinary move deepens the sense of political crisis in a country already reeling from an Islamist insurgency, economic woes and crippling power shortages.
Mahkdoom Shahabuddin, who most recently served as Textiles Minister, was due to be voted into office by parliament on Friday, replacing Yousuf Raza Gilani who was disqualified by the Supreme Court earlier this week.
Mr Shahabuddin was selected by President Asif Ali Zardari after two days of talks as the man best able to keep his coalition government alive until elections due early next year.
But no sooner had his name been announced than an arrest warrant was issued for his alleged role in a corruption scandal involving controlled drugs.
Fawad Chaudhry, a senior figure in Mr Zardari’s Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP), said the arrest warrant was the latest attempt by unelected judges to bring down the government.
“This has been going on for one and a half years,” he said. “If they really believe he is involved why have they waited until today to issue an arrest warrant?”
Party leaders were meeting on Thursday night to select an alternative candidate. Qamar Zaman Kaira and Raja Parvez Ashraf, both former ministers in Mr Gilani’s cabinet, filed nomination papers for the post ahead of Friday’s parliamentary vote.
Pakistan’s civilian government, military and judiciary are locked in a three-way tussle for supremacy.
On Tuesday, Mr Gilani was barred from office after refusing to act on a Supreme Court order to ask Swiss authorities to reopen a corruption investigation into President Zardari.
His replacement will find himself under similar pressure from the country’s chief justice to write to Swiss investigators or face disqualification and a fresh wave of turmoil.
Mr Shahabuddin’s charge relates to a complex scam that saw two pharmaceutical firms awarded extra quotas for the controlled substance ephedrine, which can be used as a stimulant or in the manufacture of illicit drugs.
They claimed they had licences to export the drug to Afghanistan, but investigators believe it was then sold into the local market.
Mr Shahabuddin was health minister when the scandal came to light in 2011. He denies the charges.