It seems the current civilian authorities in Pakistan are all set to meet a dead end in the near future. The judiciary, bolstered by a successful coup against an incumbent prime minister, is in no mood to ease its pressure on the government.
After the country's supreme court asked the new PM, Raja Pervez Ashraf to reopen the graft cases against the President, Asif Ali Zardari, something it had also pressurised Pervez's predecessor Yousuf Raza Gilani to pursue and ousted him for not complying, the Lahore High Court has asked Zardari to give up political activities by Sept 5 or else he would face the consequences.
The court's definite order came on Thursday, just a day after it had directed Zardari to act on its earlier order to relinquish political activities and not to use the president's office to meet political ends. It may be mentioned that two petitions were filed against the Pakistan President for not quitting as the head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP). The court said that Zardari had been given enough time to comply to its order and now if he did not follow the orders, he was set to face charges of contempt of court. This is his last chance, said the court. Zardari had earlier this year said he would quit if the party wants but has not acted on its since. Now he would have to find a way to meet the court's challenge. A poor relation with the US would also not earn much support for the top leadership in its domestic struggle for survival.
What can Zardari do?
Zardari, undoubtedly, would like to defend himself by remaining the President. Two options are open for him. Either, the general elections are postponed for some more time, may be another six months so that the PPP chief gets re-elected as the President from his own parliament (in case it wins again) or, he tries to get re-elected before the completion of his present tenure. Zardari's current terms as the President is scheduled to end in Sept 2013. The coalition partners of the PPP would also not like Zardari's departure for that could put their political future in trouble too. Zardari is a central force for the coalition at the moment. However, even if Zardari is removed from office, it is very unlikely that a non-PPP government would nail him on charges of corruption and as like other deposed leaders, he could end up leaving the country and reside abroad.
Another advantage that Zardari has is that the Chairman of the Pakistan Senate is a man from the PPP. This means that even if Zardari is ousted from the presidency by judicial activism, the Senate Chairman, Syed Nayyar Hussain Bukhari, will become the President as per the Constitution and that would act as a shield against himself and the party.
New PM also under pressure
The judiciary's latest move on Zardari followed its 'seeking cooperation' from the new PM, Ashraf, to reopen the corruption cases pending against Zardari involving Swiss bank accounts. The PPP is clearly at a receiving end in the face of the judiciary's onslaught. Ashraf, the former water and power minister, although indicated that he would not comply with the court's order but in reality, he has a very brittle ground to successfully defend himself.
He, like his predecessor, Gilani, said that the country's constitution grants the President an immunity from any charges, the judiciary has quashed such defence consistently, saying nobody was above all. The latter, led by a determined Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry who had a striking difference with former President Pervez Musharraf as well, looks a much formidable force to unsettle a shaky civilian government. Ashraf has been given time till Jul 12 to explain his position on the order.
What's in store for Ashraf?
Not many people expect Ashraf to continue for long in the office. He would be pressurised by the court to reopen the corruption charges against Zardari, something which he would not oblige for the President is his own party boss and chances are very high for him also going the Gilani way. There is virtually no middle-ground on this issue. More crisis awaits Pakistan in the days to come, one could say without any doubt. The tainted image would also make Ashraf a soft target for the opposition and the media.
The Pakistan Muslim League (N), the opposition and the second largest party after the PPP, has already decided to move the court against Ashraf. Besides, the new incumbent would have to deal with several other challenges both in home and abroad.
However, sources said the PPP leadership was thinking of changing the very law of contempt to tackle the motivated judiciary. Experts feel the government had the Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003 in mind. However, other legal authorities think such a ploy would not be successful for the Supreme Court had already set a precedent by sacking the previous PM while deciding the National Reconciliation Ordinance judgment implementation case.
Ashraf himself a tainted man
Ashraf is accused of corruption charges as well and is held widely responsible for the country's power woes. The Supreme Court had, in the past, sought an investigation against Ashraf's role in issuing licenses to rental power plants to help overcome the power shortages but they did not help the cause and instead drained out huge government funds. The rental power plants contracts were cancelled and the court had said that those responsible for such goof-up would be brought to law. His power as the water and power minister was also revoked in Feb last year.
What after Ashraf?
Another pawn in the game, Ashraf could get ousted in no time as well. Even the PPP would not want him for long so that the political turmoil continues and real issues of the country lies buried. However, whether Ashraf continues in the office or not, elections would be due in Pakistan in some months and a cornered PPP leadership would have to go to the polls as its only resort.
Given the declining popularity of Zardari, the judiciary targeting him and the compulsion of coalition politics, it is very unlikely that Islamabad would emerge a stable centre of power in the near future, something the parallel power centres like the judiciary and army would cherish. New forces like cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan are also gaining more and more significance in Pakistan politics. The turmoil in Islamabad could also have negative consequences for the country's foreign policy, particularly in Afghanistan.
The judiciary's 'Wiping out corruption' mission might have a populist appeal, but to many experts, it has perhaps resorted to over-action. A columnist in the Dawn newspaper said judicial activism is a common phenomenon in every country, more particularly where rule of law is frequently violated, but that does not ask the Supreme Court to emerge as an alternative government and even sack the leader of an elected government.
The judiciary itself is also not above corruption charges. Justice Chaudhry caught the headlines for the wrong reasons after a real estate tycoon, Malik Riaz Hussain, claimed that he had paid over Rs 342 million to the former's son, Arsalan Iftikhar, to influence Supreme Court cases.