A Pakistani judge on Thursday ordered the arrest of President Asif Ali Zardari's top candidate to become the next prime minister after the Supreme Court ousted the previous incumbent for contempt.
ISLAMABAD- The warrant was issued in an anti-narcotics court just hours after Makhdoom Shahabuddin's nomination was announced and a day before the lower house of parliament meets to elect a new premier.
State television said there was no legal bar on him being elected, but the move threw into jeopardy hopes of a swift resolution to the crisis created by the dismissal of Yousuf Raza Gilani on Tuesday.
Qamar Zaman Kaira, another leading light in the main ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), also threw his hat into the ring on top of a third, "cover" PPP candidate.
The chaos exposes potentially damaging power struggles in the nuclear-armed country, facing a Taliban insurgency and subject to US wrath over havens for Al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting the Americans in Afghanistan.
Critics shrugged off the warrant as politically motivated, but analysts suggested that it could signal that the powerful military, considered the chief arbiter of power in Pakistan, were unprepared to back Shahabuddin.
Shahabuddin, a staunch Zardari loyalist with a powerbase in Pakistan's Punjab political heartland, had been textiles minister until Tuesday.
He was the consensus choice following more than 24 hours of crisis talks and intense horse trading between Zardari and members of his fractious ruling coalition.
He was briefly finance minister during the 1993-1996 premiership of Benazir Bhutto, Zardari's wife who was assassinated in 2007. But it was his stint as health minister that led to his arrest warrant over the alleged import of an illegal drug in 2010.
Judge Shafqatullah Khan also issued a warrant for Ali Musa Gilani, son of the outgoing premier over the same scandal.
An anti-narcotics investigator told the court in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the army, that evidence given by Shahabuddin and Gilani junior had "not convinced" investigators of their innocence.
"We want them to be arrested so we can investigate them further," he said.
After submitting his nomination papers to the national assembly, Shahabuddin thanked Zardari and shrugged off a question about his possible arrest by quoting a line of Urdu poetry alluding flying high on "hostile winds".
Political analyst Hasan Askari said suspicion would fall on the military for being behind the warrant, saying it was unusual for junior courts to intervene against senior politicians without being pushed.
"Makhdoom Shahabuddin's chances are declining because the action by the anti-narcotics force gives an impression that the army is not favourable to him. It appears that the army wants to wind up the present government but without actually coming into power," Askari told AFP.
The PPP's cover candidate, Raja Pervez Ashraf, has also been dogged by allegations of corruption and controversy over his tenure as water and power minister, and is thought to have less political clout than Kaira.
Four other politicians, including two from the opposition, are also standing for election on Friday in what is considered a largely symbolic move as the PPP leads a majority in the assembly.
Gilani, who became prime minister after the PPP won elections in 2008 ending nearly a decade of military rule, was dismissed for refusing to ask Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against Zardari.
The new premier will face the same pressure to write to the Swiss, sparking speculation that elections due early next year could be brought forward.
There has been criticism of the judges' interference but other analysts pointed out the change of prime minister will have little tangible effect on policy or the longevity of the government.
Gilani's disqualification was the culmination of a showdown between the judiciary led by a popular chief justice, and a weak, ineffective government that critics say has been politicised at best, or vendetta-driven at worst.
The cases against Zardari date to the 1990s, when he and Bhutto are suspected of using Swiss banks to launder $12 million allegedly paid in bribes by companies seeking customs contracts.
The Swiss shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became president.