Former Pakistan finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh
Islamabad, Feb. 19 (Agencies): Pakistani finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh resigned today, two officials said, amid speculation that he may lead a caretaker government that must be set up before national elections scheduled for this spring.
Pakistani law stipulates that the cabinet must step down and a caretaker government be in place for 90 days before an election. The date for the election has not yet been set.
“He’s the government’s top nominee for the Prime Minister in the caretaker government,” said one of the officials.
The Opposition leader and ruling party must agree on a list of officials to head the caretaker government.
But the Opposition may object to Shaikh’s appointment because he is seen as being too close to the military and served as privatisation and investment minister under former President Pervez Musharraf.
Shaikh will be replaced by the state minister for finance, Saleem Mandviwalla, said one official in the finance ministry and another high-ranking government official.
Shaikh, who holds a PhD in economics, taught at Harvard University and worked at the World Bank for several years, advising 21 countries, including a stint as World Bank country head in Saudi Arabia.
He leaves as the Pakistan currency has slid to a historic low of 98 rupees against the dollar and the economy is beset by inflation, daily power cuts and plummeting foreign investment.
Pakistan only has enough foreign reserves left to pay for two months worth of imports. In 2008, that situation prompted a balance of payments crisis only ended when the International Monetary Fund offered a bailout package of $11 billion.
But in 2011, that programme was suspended after Shaikh was unable to push through key reforms, most notably widening Pakistan’s tax base.
Financial analysts say that others in the ruling party share the blame for that failure. Most of Pakistan’s top politicians and their elite backers don’t pay taxes and are not keen to see reforms.
Shias end protest
Pakistani Shias agreed to bury those killed in the most recent sectarian bombing, ending four days of protests, after the government said today it had arrested 170 suspects linked to the attack.
Saturday’s bombing in the northwestern city of Quetta killed 85 people. In an echo of a protest last month after a similar attack left nearly 100 dead, grieving relatives refused to bury their kin in a powerful rebuke to a government they say has repeatedly failed to protect them. Today, Shia leaders called off the protest after information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said four suspects had been killed and 170 people arrested within hours of the government announcing an operation against the militants.
“The operation will go on until all culprits are nabbed,” Kaira said. It was unclear how Pakistan’s security forces were able to locate so many suspects in such a short period of time, or why they had not moved to do so before.
Pakistan has a poor record when it comes to prosecuting terrorism suspects. More than 60 per cent of suspects brought before anti-terrorism courts in Punjab province were released in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.
“All our demands have been met,” said Shia leader Amin Shaheedi. “The government has assured us that Quetta will be protected now and such incidents will not be repeated.”
Interior minister Rehman Malik said the government had also replaced the provincial police chief and offered to heavily fortify the Hazara Shia enclave in Quetta. Those who come out risk being killed.
The Hazara are a distinctive ethnic group whose features and dialect make them easy targets for Sunni militants. Protests in support of the Shias in Quetta were also held in other cities across the country.
In Karachi, protesters blocked the road to the airport. In Islamabad, protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court, where the chief justice has opened hearings into the violence.
He is demanding reports from intelligence services on what they are doing to counter the threat from the Sunni sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
The LeJ claimed responsibility for both Saturday’s bombing and one last month that claimed nearly 100 lives.