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Pakistan’s skydiving PM seen soothing military, energy fears

Abbasi’s father was an Air Force commodore while his father-in-law headed the ISI military spy agency, which PML-N leaders feel will make the new prime minister more palatable to the army.

world Updated: Aug 09, 2017 17:14 IST
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi at a meeting in Islamabad on August 9.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi at a meeting in Islamabad on August 9.(Reuters)

Family links to Pakistan’s powerful military and a cabinet stint championing the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) will probably help new Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi navigate thorny relations with the army and curb rolling blackouts.

How Abbasi, the co-founder of a budget airline and a skydiving fan, tackles those two issues may define his tenure as he seeks to tilt the next general election, due in mid-2018, towards the ruling PML-N party.

Ousted leader Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court last month and within days had installed Abbasi as a temporary prime minister. Sharif then had a change of heart about plans to elevate his brother as long-term leader.

With Abbasi, 58, now likely to stay on until the election, the opposition is training its crosshairs on him while voters seek clues as to what he can accomplish in less than a year as the leader of a nuclear-armed nation of 190 million.

US-educated Abbasi has been frank about Sharif’s role as the power behind the throne but those close to him expect a slightly different approach to the army.

“He is going to repair the relationship and have a better communication channel to the army than Nawaz,” said a senior PML-N official. “Shahid is very pragmatic and aware that the army is there, and you can’t just wish them away.”

Sharif has endured fraught relations with the military during his three stints in power and some of his allies have hinted elements of the army were involved in his Supreme Court disqualification. The military denies involvement.

PML-N politicians say Abbasi’s family ties to the military — his father was an Air Force commodore while his father-in-law headed the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) military spy agency — will make him more palatable to the army.

After his first meeting with the army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa on Tuesday, Abbasi said: “The entire nation is proud of the sacrifices rendered by security personnel in ridding the motherland from the menace of terrorism.”

Pakistan’s military has a history of meddling in politics, and staging coups, including one in 1999 that toppled a previous Sharif government and saw Abbasi jailed for two years with the veteran leader.

The army pushed Abbasi to switch allegiance from Sharif but he refused, cementing his reputation as a loyalist.

The opposition has accused Abbasi of acting as a “pawn” to keep Sharif as a de facto leader. “He’s a decent, educated guy but he’s basically a show-boy, just there to fulfil the legal requirements,” said Shah Mehmood Qureshi, vice-chairman of the opposition PTI party.

One of Abbasi’s first moves was to merge the petroleum and power ministries, a step Western donors had advocated for nearly a decade. He will head the new energy ministry.

He championed Pakistan’s embrace of LNG after the PML-N won 2013 elections with a promise to end frequent power outages. In an interview with Reuters as petroleum minister in July, Abbasi said he wanted to ramp up use of LNG for power plants and was scathing about a power ministry that was “averse to change”.

On Tuesday, he announced that future energy plants would focus on gas and domestic coal over oil.

Pakistan’s LNG bet has largely paid off, with Western companies flocking to build terminals and other infrastructure, despite initial scepticism.

Abbasi has promised blackouts will end by November, which would give the PML-N a huge fillip ahead of the 2018 polls.

The former engineer “likes to get his hands dirty” and will be more than a placeholder, said one senior energy official who has worked closely with Abbasi.

“He’s into results,” the official added. “He often says to us: ‘Talk is really cheap, you need to deliver.’“