Pakistan prime minister's career from jail to power
Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani was once jailed for refusing to switch allegiance. Some say that's what made him prime minister, and now, with a recent constitutional change, a man more powerful than the president.http://www.latimes.com/
A stint behind bars doesn't always have to be an ignominious coda to a politician's career. In the case of Yusaf Raza Gilani, it became a badge of honor.
Gilani was an opposition party stalwart in 2001 when Pakistan's then-President Gen. Pervez Musharraf gave him and other supporters of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto a choice: switch over to the general's side, or spend time in prison.
"Some gave in, but Gilani refused," said Syed Nazimuddin Shah, a provincial lawmaker and a friend of Gilani since childhood. "That's why he's so respected. And that's why they made him prime minister."
Gilani's loyalty cost him five years of his life, but it paid off.
Today, Musharraf lives in exile. Although Bhutto was assassinated in late 2007, her Pakistan People's Party controls the levers of government.
And with sweeping constitutional changes signed into law Monday, the 57-year-old Gilani now wields more power than the man who put him in the prime minister's post, President Asif Ali Zardari.
The shift in powers means the U.S. has a new leader in Islamabad to wrangle with as it molds its relationship with Pakistan, a pivotal but volatile ally in Washington's anti-terrorism campaign.
On one of his first appearances in Washington, the prime minister came off as uncomfortable and unprepared. A Pakistani journalist with the English-language Daily Times called Gilani's performance "awkward and embarrassing."
But Gilani has also deftly steered Zardari through several difficult crises and kept Pakistan's political caldron from boiling over.
Still, the relationship with Washington isn't expected to change significantly with Gilani at the helm, largely because he remains a Zardari loyalist and will stick to the president's script, and because the country's all-powerful military retains a dominant role in crafting relations with the United States.
In the blood sport that is Pakistani politics, power plays and backroom arm-twisting usually mark the road to high office. Gilani followed a different path, experts and friends say.
Among his party colleagues, the tall, soft-spoken Pakistani has always been known as the dutiful troubleshooter who eschews confrontation in favor of compromise. He has risen through party ranks because he puts out fires.
"Gilani in some ways is very key and crucial for PPP now, because he's the man who gives the persona that everyone is comfortable with," said political analyst Nasim Zehra. "He's not a maverick, and he's not a rebel. He will play within the system."
Playing within the system means never countermanding Zardari, who rose to power in 2008 after the death of Bhutto, who was his wife. Zardari initially resisted the movement to shift most presidential powers to the prime minister, but ultimately gave in to pressure from opposition leaders and the popular will of Pakistanis.
The amendment that Zardari signed into law Monday reverses the constitutional changes Musharraf enacted in 2003 that strengthened his authority. But even if the 54-year-old president has lost the authority to dissolve parliament and to appoint chiefs of the country's military, he remains head of the ruling party. That keeps Gilani in a subordinate role.
"Gilani gets his political authority because Zardari allows him to be situated where he is," Zehra said.
Gilani began his political career in Multan, a sprawling city of 1.4 million in southern Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province. His family tree is dotted with political notables: His father was a signer of the Pakistan Resolution, a document akin to the Declaration of Independence, and his great-great-uncle was known as the father of the Indian parliament.
In the 1980s, Gilani served several stints in the Cabinet, including railway minister and housing and works minister. He joined Bhutto's party in 1988, taking on Cabinet jobs and then becoming parliament speaker while she was prime minister.
After Musharraf took power in a coup in 1999, Gilani was arrested on corruption charges connected to his role in the hiring of 600 of his constituents for government jobs. Though the charges were widely viewed as politically motivated, he spent more than five years in Rawalpindi's Adiala prison.
"People would visit him and tell him it would be best just to give in," said Mohammed Naeem Khan, an official at Bahauddin Zakaria University in Multan and a friend of Gilani's for 30 years. "He would reply: ‘Don't worry about me. I'll pass through this difficult time. I know this decision will help me later on.' "
Gilani was released in 2006. Two years later, as Musharraf's political might waned and Bhutto's party regained its clout, the PPP chose him over party president Makhdoom Amin Fahim to become prime minister.
His record in the post has yielded mixed results. Gilani's government has failed to make a dent in massive power and water shortages that have crippled the economy. Corruption remains rife at all levels of society.
In February, Zardari faced a stiff test when his nemesis, Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, negated the president's appointments of two senior judges, saying the appointments were unconstitutional.
Gilani defused the appointments crisis over tea with Chaudhry at the prime minister's residence, acquiescing to the chief justice's recommendations while ensuring that the clash would not lead to Zardari's removal on the grounds of committing an unconstitutional act.
"Gilani is an extremely useful leader for Zardari, and extremely useful for the country right now," Zehra said. "He seems to be the reconciliation man."