Pakistan's premier-designate Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, right, leaves with his aids after meeting with politicians in Parliament house in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, July 31, 2017. A day later he was appointed prime minister.
Pakistan's premier-designate Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, right, leaves with his aids after meeting with politicians in Parliament house in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, July 31, 2017. A day later he was appointed prime minister.

Pakistan's new Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi formed a cabinet on Friday, filled with allies of toppled leader Nawaz Sharif, in a reshuffle that appears to be aimed at bolstering support ahead of general elections due in mid-2018.

The portfolios of the ministers are to be announced later but some of the known changes in the new 47-member Cabinet include that Pakistan will get its first full-time foreign minister since the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party came into power in 2013.

Khawaja Asif, a Sharif ally, is to be Foreign Minister after having simultaneously run the ministries of defence and power.

Thrice-elected, Sharif's government had no foreign minister, though the job was often handled by one of Sharif's advisers, Sartaj Aziz.

Ishaq Dar, a powerful finance minister, returns in the same role, despite a criminal investigation ordered against him by the Supreme Court.

"Massive cabinet"

The cabinet has almost doubled in size to 47 members, sworn in during a televised ceremony after a reading from the Quran, the Muslim holy book in the Muslim-majority nation of 190 million people.

"It's a massive cabinet," said Pakistani writer and analyst Zahid Hussain. "It shows that it's all about the next election."

"Our hearts are sad on this day" and we miss Sharif, said Khawaja Saad Rafique, a leader of the ruling party, shortly before the swearing-in ceremony.

Former petroleum minister Abbasi, the co-founder of a budget airline, has vowed to run an efficient government but has indicated major decisions will flow from Sharif, cementing the view of the toppled leader as the power behind the seat.

Abbasi is a staunch Sharif ally, having been by his side for most of his political career. The cabinet was formed after several discussions between them, and Sharif's allies.

There are 28 federal ministers and 19 state ministers in the new cabinet, almost double Sharif's 25-strong cabinet when he swept the 2013 polls.

Abbasi will also head a new energy ministry that merges the petroleum and power portfolios.

Ahsan Iqbal, head of a commission tasked with building the Beijing-funded $57 billion China-Pakistan Economic corridor, has been appointed Interior Minister.

The opposition has criticised the PML-N's focus on large infrastructure projects as vote-focused measures that saddle Pakistan with debt, at the expense of schools and hospitals.

"If they carry on with Nawaz Sharif's policies, the country will go deeper into debt," said Naeem Ul Haq, of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party.

Uncertainty over leadership change

Sharif resigned last week after the Supreme Court disqualified him for not declaring a source of income he denies receiving. But he retains control of PML-N and put forward Abbasi as temporary prime minister until Shahbaz becomes eligible to take over by winning a parliamentary by-election.

The opposition has criticised this intention as dynastic and undemocratic, criticism that Abbasi rejects.​

Since Abbasi's election, however, the party leadership no longer seems sure about the plan for Abbasi to step down as premier, as outlined previously, as some fear Shahbaz's departure from his position as chief minister of eastern Punjab state could weaken the party's grip on a core base of voters.

Pakistan's mix of political parties means that whoever wins Punjab, which is home to more than half the country's population, is likely to form the next government.

Patronage politics

To shore up the voter base in Punjab, Abbasi has added five politicians from prominent families that command huge vote banks in the south of the region, seen as pivotal to the next poll.

A feudal structure in much of rural Pakistan allows powerful families to wield patronage and command voter allegiances, often easily switched in a nation where political parties are driven more by powerful figureheads than ideology.

The inclusion of five politicians from south Punjab aimed to nail down their loyalties ahead of the 2018 contest, analyst Hussain said.

"There was always been a fear or a concern they would jump ship if the government seems weak," he added.

Under Sharif, the PML-N has also courted the minority vote, using symbolic gestures at odds with its conservative base.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies