I am no bench warmer, says Pakistan's new interim Prime Minister Abbasi

Khaqan Abbasi (centre) speaks at the Parliament House in Islamabad, on Aug 1, 2017.
Khaqan Abbasi (centre) speaks at the Parliament House in Islamabad, on Aug 1, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD (NYTIMES) - The interim prime minister of Pakistan, picked to temporarily replace his corruption-scarred predecessor, said on Tuesday (Aug 1) that he had no choice but to take the job but that he was no "bench warmer".

In an interview with The New York Times an hour before being formally approved by Parliament, the interim prime minister, Mr Shahid Khaqan Abbasi - the petroleum minister who is a long-time politician, airline owner and sky diving buff - also vowed to fix what he described as political abnormalities between the executive, judicial and military branches that had felled previous governments.

Mr Abbasi, 58, took over for Mr Nawaz Sharif, the three-term prime minister who was long-plagued by corruption allegations. The Supreme Court ruled on Friday (July 28) that Mr Sharif was disqualified because of undeclared assets.

The ruling was based partly on revelations of offshore wealth held by Mr Sharif's children, disclosed in leaked documents from Panama last year.

With strong fealty to Mr Sharif, Mr Abbasi will run Pakistan with the expectation of eventually being replaced by Mr Sharif's hand-picked successor as leader of the dominant Pakistan Muslim League party - his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, who must first vie for the parliamentary seat vacated by the former leader's disqualification.

Mr Shahbaz Sharif is currently the chief minister of Punjab province, Pakistan's most crucial power base.

 

But there is no guarantee that the corruption claims that brought down Mr Nawaz Sharif will leave his younger brother unscathed, raising the possibility that Mr Abbasi's tenure as prime minister could last indefinitely.

The Muslim League holds 188 of 342 seats in Parliament's Lower House, and with additional votes from its allies, Mr Abbasi won 221 votes to win the top slot. He will remain petroleum minister while assuming the job that was held by Mr Sharif, whom he described as a victim of an unfair Supreme Court decision.

"I had no ambitions for this job," Mr Abbasi said in his chamber as he hastily scribbled his acceptance speech for interim prime minister on sheets of paper in green ink. "My party sent me here and here I am. It was a fait accompli. I was not given a choice."

When I asked if he had wanted to be prime minister, Mr Abbasi said: "Given a choice, I would not take the job."

But he insisted that he would not function as a "bench warmer" for Mr Sharif's sibling, and said his first order of business would be to improve the executive's relationship with the military and the judiciary.

"There are certain issues here which I cannot reconcile with, the way our whole system operates, the relationship between the judiciary and the executive, within the executive, the civil-military relationship," Mr Abbasi said.

"I think there are issues which do not allow governments to perform here, and the country is suffering," he added. "My aim will be to contribute to fixing those anomalies."

He did not specify what steps he would take, but said he preferred "engagement" over "politics of confrontation".

"I think there is room for improvement," Mr Abbasi said when asked whether smoothing civil-military relations would be part of his agenda. "The relationship is functional, and I think there is a need to define it more fully through engagement."

Mr Nawaz Sharif has tense ties with Pakistan's army, and his previous government had been toppled by a bloodless coup in 1999. During his most recent tenure, Mr Sharif's overtures of more openness toward India were spurned by the army.

Speculation also circulated that the military had secretly supported street protests to dislodge Mr Sharif's government in 2014.

"The first thing to realise is that we are all on the same side," Mr Abbasi said, referring to the civilian government and the military. "I think we need to reinforce that realisation."

Mr Abbasi's political history is not pristine. He is accused of violating rules in awarding a liquefied natural gas import contract in 2015, a case under investigation by Pakistan's anti-corruption regulator, the National Accountability Bureau.

He has dismissed the accusations as the work of powerful oil interests that wanted to subvert competition from liquefied natural gas. Under his watch, Pakistan built its first liquefied natural gas terminal in 2015, and a second terminal is due to come online in October.

Mr Abbasi criticised the Supreme Court decision that felled Mr Sharif as an extremely narrow legal argument. He declined to speculate on why the court had made such a decision with "no evidence," but said, "We don't accept it, the people don't accept it."

"If the courts operate under public pressure and media pressure, then God help us all. I would then not go to court but pray for justice," Mr Abbasi said.

The new interim prime minister is an aviation enthusiast who loves to fly planes and sky-dive. He owns the low-cost Airblue airline and described himself as an "outdoors person" who enjoys camping and hiking. He is also well known for driving to work without a security detail.

"I value my freedom and my privacy, and both are gone today," Mr Abbasi said. "Generally I drive myself, but that's going to change from this evening, unfortunately."

Asked whether he was planning for the possibility of remaining prime minister for a longer period or being a prime ministerial candidate in the 2018 general election, Mr Abbasi said: "Whatever the party decides. I have no particular ambition. That's the party's choice."

Many analysts suspect that Mr Nawaz Sharif will continue to make major decisions behind the scenes for Mr Abbasi, but the new leader rejected such conjecture.

"I'm free to take decisions," the new interim prime minister said.

But he added: "I am Nawaz Sharif's man, and the people's prime minister is Nawaz Sharif."