Respected by both Pakistan's powerful military and Washington, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani may be the best chance of bringing political and economic stability to crucial US ally Pakistan.
A Supreme Court ruling last month throwing out an amnesty for unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari, several top aides and thousands of activists and government figures, triggered a political storm and expectation that Zardari was on his way out.
Political turmoil in the nuclear-armed South Asian country worries the United States. Washington is pressing Islamabad to focus on eliminating Al Qaeda and Taliban activists along the border to help stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan.
Gilani, who has tiptoed through Pakistan's political minefield without making too many enemies, may be the steady hand the country needs to deal with a raging Taliban insurgency and deep economic troubles, say several analysts.
"The prime minister has a reputation for moderation, always looking for consensus. The army trusts him," said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified.
The US, which has pledged $7.5 billion (Dh27.54bn) in non-military aid to Pakistan over the next five years, sees Gilani as someone it can do business with, analysts say.
When senior Obama administration officials like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates visit Pakistan, they make a point of meeting Gilani, who tends to steer away from controversy.
Analysts say a new political landscape would please Pakistan's military – a more powerful prime minister on their side and Zardari as more of a figurehead than a decision-maker – as it runs the show from behind the scenes.
"He is more amenable to persuasion and there are no real problems with him," another diplomat said of Gilani.
But Gilani would face an array of challenges if he takes on more responsibility, and he would take the heat, not the military, if policies fail.
Frustrations are growing over the price of sugar and other kitchen staples such as cooking oil and flour. Bombings have killed hundreds of people since a security offensive was launched in October in the Taliban's South Waziristan stronghold.
The economy is in virtual recession. The military campaign against the Taliban is draining an already battered economy and Pakistanis want better security.
Trouble had been piling up for Zardari, who may have edged back from the precipice but is still far from safe.
The opposition wants him to give up sweeping powers inherited from his predecessor, General Pervez Musharraf, whose co-operation with the US in the fight against terrorism and tussle with Pakistan's judiciary ultimately led to his demise.
In order to retain the presidency, Zardari may be forced to surrender those powers to Gilani, a career politician who is Vice-Chairman of Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
"He (Zardari) will survive but with his wings clipped," said Mushahid Hussain, a senior member of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League.
Zardari has already handed over control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons to Gilani, although in practical terms the army oversees the arsenal. But the move had symbolic value.
The widower of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Zardari made the mistake of crossing the military several times since he came to power in 2008 – making overtures to rival India and trying to put the powerful intelligence service under civilian control.
Unlike Zardari, Gilani has not antagonised the military and it is highly doubtful he would challenge them in future.
"There is a general consensus that the powers of the president should be decreased," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political and defence consultant in Lahore.
"He has few options open to him," he said of Zardari.
While Zardari is under fire from all sides, few Pakistanis want the military to be in full control as it has been for more than half of Pakistan's 63-year history. No civilian government in Pakistan has ever served out its term.
Gilani, who like many Pakistani politicians spent time in prison on charges of misuse of authority, may be the best compromise.
"We are heading in that direction. Gilani will have more power and Zardari would just be an ornament in the drawing room. Not hurting anybody," said the Muslim League's Hussain. (Reuters)
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