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Open and shut

Publication Date : 22-06-2012


It can perhaps happen only in Pakistan, but the furore over the disqualification of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani seems to have eclipsed the reason why he became the target of courts -- namely, President Asif Ali Zardari. The courts had wanted the Prime Minister to write to Swiss authorities for reopening cases against Zardari. Gilani refused and after a prolonged legal battle, was disqualified by Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

The ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) authorised the tainted man to select the new Prime Minister who Gilani declared will be “my nominee” and will also not approach Swiss authorities despite the directive of Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Zardari, also in a defiant mood, declared that the era of “packing Parliament through the back door” is over and “no back doors or side doors will be allowed to be reopened for sending elected parliamentarians home.” So any Prime Minister of the PPP will again defy the court’s directives, and will again have to be disqualified. Unless, of course, the government cracks down on the judiciary, arrests all independent judges, and proves the power of the executive and the legislature over the judiciary through the use of brutal force.

Short of this, the cases against President Zardari stand and Pakistan’s Supreme Court, clearly in no mood to reconcile with the government, will continue pursuing the cases of corruption against him. The chaos over Gilani’s disqualification is thus not temporary, and the clouds are not going to disperse easily. The government led by a President widely acknowledged to be corrupt -- from taxi drivers to legislators in Pakistan -- is not in a position to resist a firm judiciary without its seams bursting open. PPP legislators dubbing the court verdict as a “conspiracy” to prevent the Zardari government from completing its five years in office in February 2013 are actually admitting the writing on the wall: early elections are round the corner.

Zardari’s brave talk is not convincing. And, while the worry is real in battle-torn Pakistan about the outcome of this clash between the executive, legislature and the judiciary, there is not much left in the system to check it. The only way out of the mess, and that too is not a certain option, are early polls. Imran Khan has already called for elections. The others, craftier in their politics, are seeking new alignments. Former Prime Minister and head of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Nawaz Sharif, has become active in trying to make friends with old enemies, including some he had vowed never to speak to again as long as he lived. Zardari has already spoken to Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) chief Altaf Hussain and made a bid to persuade Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman to come back to the PPP-led coalition. The Maulana has reportedly refused.

The point is that Pakistan seems to be hurtling towards an election at breakneck speed. There is a growing feeling within that country that these might provide a fresh start by bringing a new, and perhaps less-corrupt and more responsive, government to power. It is clear that Pakistan’s army under General Pervez Kayani is not going to seek power, preferring to let the so-called institutions of a fragile democracy battle it out. Imran Khan has perhaps the least to lose and the most to gain, as from a tally of zero he hopes to rise to the position of at least a “kingmaker” if not the king himself. It is true though that his popularity has grown tremendously, and the young people seem to now look upon him as their preferred option. To what extent this translates into votes has to be seen and Pakistanis across Islamabad drawing rooms, for instance, remain divided between a “he will sweep” position to a “he will definitely get a few seats.” Imran’s relations with the military seem to be good, and he is not likely to face any real opposition from this all-important constituency in Pakistan.

PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif seems to be coming out of his slumber to make a bid for power. He has waited for long, and is now said to have approached several political parties, including individuals in the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), if Pakistani media reports are to be believed. The former Prime Minister is believed to be in touch with the MQM and the Awami National Party (ANP) as well as smaller groups in the National Assembly such as the JUI-F and the PPP-Sherpao. No one has rushed to oblige him yet but the process, as politicians like to say, is on.

The manipulative skills of Zardari that Pakistanis recognise as “highly successful” in keeping him and the PPP in power have alienated many in government, and even in his party. Even when trusted confidants are paying the price for their loyalty, Zardari himself has managed to stay out of the legal loop and will till a Pakistani Prime Minister writes to the Swiss government, and it agrees to provide necessary information to Pakistani courts. Seems very much like the Bofors or blackmoney trail that successive Indian governments have pursued over decades with little or no result!

Democracy in Pakistan has been taking a knock, over and over again. The people’s will has been crushed several times by the country’s army through direct rule; and now by this unseemly row between the pillars of democracy over a President who has refused to step down and allow the law to take its course. It is interesting to note that Pakistan’s media has not really questioned Zardari’s or has cared to find out about his plans to restore the rule of law and uphold the country’s democratic institutions. Instead, even leading luminaries have got involved in the judiciary versus executive debate, with the latter now threatening to take the matter to the legislature as it has in the recent past. Articles about the role of the judiciary have appeared in the media, but while it is important to have a debate as we have here in India over the role of the judiciary or judicial activism as many call it, it is also important to understand the reasons for the row, and what can be done to facilitate effective functioning of these important institutions. President Zardari is certainly part of the problem and not the solution as he seems to think he is.


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