Makhdoom Shahabuddin was asked by President Asif Ali Zardari in the wee hours of Thursday to contest the elections for Pakistan's premiership. Another erstwhile federal minister Raja Parvez Ashraf has been asked to file his nomination papers as a “cover candidate” for the elections scheduled for Friday evening.

However, the President's spokesman Farhatullah Babar told The Hindu hours later that no decision as such had been taken on who would be the official candidate. He did not elaborate. From all indications, the two former ministers have been told to get their papers ready for filing nominations by 2 p.m. on Thursday and a final decision will be taken later.

Mr. Shahabuddin - who was Textile Industry Minister in the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani - had emerged as a frontrunner from the moment the Supreme Court pronounced its verdict showing the door to the previous dispensation. Mr. Ashraf's name is a surprise addition as it was not among those in circulation.

Given the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) focus on South Punjab - the party has promised separate statehood to the region - Mr. Shahabuddin was seen as a natural choice to replace Mr. Gilani who also hails from that area. The PPP picks up most of its seats in Pakistan's most populous province of Punjab from its southern part.

The main opposition to Mr. Shahabuddin's candidature apparently came from Mr. Gilani himself as he was averse to another PPP leader from South Punjab occupying that high profile office. Another issue that went against Mr. Shahabuddin pertained to him being named in a corruption scandal.

Mr. Shahabuddin hails from the landed aristocracy of South Punjab and his family has been involved in politics from the days of the Bahawalpur princely state and has had representation in Pakistan's Parliament since its very inception.

Mr. Ashraf is from Rawalpindi in North Punjab. He, too, has cases pending against him in the Supreme Court and is among those individuals named in the Rental Power Plant case.

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