Pakistan politics is in turmoil once again. The incumbent prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, the longest-serving PM in the country's history who held office for 47 months, was disqualified by the Supreme Court for flouting its order to write to the Swiss authorities to reopen graft charges levelled against the President, Asif Ali Zardari.
Zardari is the chief of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to which Gilani also belongs. Gilani was convicted of contempt of court on April 25 but yet continued to hang on for two months after National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza had given ruling in his favour. But on Tuesday, the top court quashed the Speaker's decision and sent Gilani packing. The cabinet, too, was effectively dissolved by the ruling. Anti-government voices welcomed the move and said it was indeed 'favouring' democracy in Pakistan.
Charges against Zardari
Zardari and his wife, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in December 2007, were accused in the 1990s of maintaining Swiss bank accounts for looted millions. The case was temporarily halted but the apex court, after annulling the National Reconciliation Ordinance of former President Pervez Musharraf, ordered to reopen the case against Zardari. Gilani was accordingly asked to take up the matter but he refused, saying it was unconstitutional and the President had immunity from prosecution as long as he was in office.
Soon after Gilani's ouster, the name of Maqdoom Shahabuddin, the Textile Minister, came to the forefront as the next Prime Minister along with those of Chaudhury Ahmed Mukhtar and Khurshid Shah. Some of the leaders also suggested the names of Hina Rabbani Khar and Samina Ghurki Zardari, who was entrusted with the task of nominating the new PM, cancelled his tour of Russia and met party members to address the emergency situation back home.
Tuesday's development could prove important for not only Pakistan's internal politics but also as far as its foreign relations are concerned. The court ruling had initially sparked protests as fears spread that this could again see an intervention by the all-powerful military in the country's politics. Later, however, the PPP decided to abide by the court's decision and concentrated on the task of finding Gilani's successor. Gilani, who was critical of the court's decision saying he was a popular candidate and could not be asked to move just by an order. He also had a right to review the petition, but there was very little chance of that being applied.
No confrontation at this moment but...
Experts on Pakistan politics were of the opinion that the PPP did not oppose the court's verdict on Gilani mainly because it was convinced somehow that Gilani's reputation was at stake and there was a need for his replacement. The party also did not want to confront the judiciary over Gilani as that could worsen the situation more and give the military an opening to gain prominence. The interim period can be used up by the PPP to chalk out its future plan and allow the prevailing chaos to settle. The experts also said that by dismissing a PM and creating a precedent, the judiciary was clearly trying to expand its power vis-a-vis the executive and legislative power centres.
...in the making?
The Gilani issue might work in favour of the PPP in case Pakistan goes for fresh polls. It would portray the latest 'judicial coup' to win a sympathy. It is not for the first time that the PPP has witnessed a conflict with the Pakistan judiciary. In 1978, the party's founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was given a death sentence by the Supreme Court. It would also divert the attention from the charges against Zardari. My be that is another reason why the Pakistan President did not oppose the court's decision. On the other hand, Supreme Court's Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is known for taking on power centres in Pakistan politics and it won't be a last time either.
New candidate will be facing the heat too
But the PPP's problem would not be solved even after it chooses a new PM. For the Supreme Court would not ease pressure and ask the new incumbent to start the probe against Zardari. It will put the new PM under stress from the very beginning. Besides the judiciary keen on expanding its domain, he would also have to keep the army in a good taste. Things, however, can take more twists in case a non-PPP man becomes the PM. The allies can make it a point to influence the governance more.
Choosing a consensus candidate would also be an uphill tusk for the PPP would have to convince its allies in the government like the PML(Q), MQM and other parties. Gilani himself was not in favour of supporting Shahabuddin for both were rivals in the southern Punjab province while the PML(Q) top leadership was also not ready to accept Mukhtar as a probable candidate due to similar reasons.
Shahabuddin a front runner
Shahabuddin's candidature yet found support due to the fact that the PPP harboured plans to create a new province out of the Seraiki belt in southern Punjab and that would make him a more prominent figure, politically.
Last year in February, Shahabuddin was tipped to become the Foreign Minister but could not after Shah Mahmood Qureshi boycotted the swearing-in ceremony in protest against the plan. Shahabuddin is a man who belongs to a respected spiritual family and is the custodian of the mausoleum of Sufi saint Shah Rukn-e-Alam.
Serious consequences both at home and abroad
The court's decision, although might not lead to the fall of the government, but it surely weakened it. An early election could also be necessitated by the June 19 development. The country is already in a serious turmoil owing to an under-performing economy, electricity shortages and terrorism. Lack of a strong central government would jeopardize it more. The USA's war against the Taliban would also be hampered owing to this for there would be a vacuum as far as Washington's engagement in Afghanistan and the adjacent areas is concerned. Pakistan had stopped the NATO supply line following an airstrike which had killed its soldiers last November and the relations between the two countries were at an all-time low. A new political crisis in Islamabad would make things difficult for Washington.
What's in store?
The current tussle is more of a continuation of the institutional power struggle that occurs in Pakistan time and again. The military might have been undergoing a phase of relative dormancy since the days of Musharraf but the judiciary is in no mood to release pressure from on the government. The current government in Pakistan is nearing to complete its tenure, the first ever since its independence, and the judiciary timed its anti-PM action in a way to rattle the establishment. For, the it is very unlikely that the charges against Zardari will be addressed sincerely now. The Swiss authorities have also stressed the point. If Zardari managed to 'escape the consequences' when he was an ordinary man, there is very little chance that he would be brought to law when he is the country's President. It is only a game orchestrated by the judiciary to keep on rocking the government by unsettling its executive heads. Pakistan, after all, is a country of accidents and absurdity.