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Grim prognosis

Print edition : Jul 27, 2012

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Raja Pervez Ashraf, the new Prime Minister, arrives at the headquarters of the Muttahida Quami Movement, an ally of the PPP, in Karachi on June 25.-RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP

Raja Pervez Ashraf, the new Prime Minister, arrives at the headquarters of the Muttahida Quami Movement, an ally of the PPP, in Karachi on June 25.-RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP

The court asks the new Prime Minister to seek the reopening of the graft cases against President Zardari or face disqualification like Yusuf Gilani.

If the events of the week after Pakistan got a new Prime Minister are anything to go by, neither the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leadership nor the Supreme Court is in the mood to relent. The doomsday prediction for those eager to see that the democratic set-up runs its course and any change of government comes through the ballot box is that the country could be headed for a government of technocrats after which the people might as well kiss elections goodbye for the next couple of years.

Although the PPP managed to tide over the political crisis following the Supreme Courts June 19 verdict disqualifying Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani from holding the post of Prime Minister, two months after it convicted him for contempt of court, it is still not out of the woods. Within a week after Gilani was stripped of the post, his successor, Raja Pervez Ashraf, found himself in a similar situation and the countdown for his exit has already begun.

Ashraf was sworn in on June 22. On June 27, the Supreme Court wanted to know whether his government intended to write to the Swiss authorities asking them to reopen the graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari or would it follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. The next hearing in the case essentially the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) judgment implementation case has been posted for July 12.

The NRO, which was promulgated during the Pervez Musharraf regime to grant amnesty on corruption cases to a large number of politicians including Zardari, bureaucrats and military personnel, was annulled by the Supreme Court in 2009. Since then the court has been insisting that the government reopen the cases against Zardari, but the PPP-led dispensation has refused to do so on the premise that he enjoys immunity as long as he holds the office of President.

In order to step up pressure on the government to write to the Swiss authorities (apparently the window of opportunity to reopen the cases against Zardari closes in September), the Supreme Court initiated contempt proceedings against Gilani in January. But even the threat of losing office and disqualification from contesting elections for five years did not deter him. The government maintained that it would be unconstitutional to ask the Swiss to reopen the cases as long as Zardari was President and that the PPP would not do anything to subvert the Constitution, which it had struggled to resurrect through the 18th Amendment. The amendment seeks to restore parliamentary democracy and the federal structure envisaged in the 1973 Constitution.

Although there are some people within the PPP, including Gilanis lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan in his private capacity, who maintain that the letter should be written, no PPP Premier will write such a letter as long as Zardari calls the shots. There are many outside the PPP who also aver that presidential immunity is a settled matter and an accepted practice the world over.

The Supreme Court has also made its position very clear. From a legal perspective, now that a precedent has been set, some observers wonder whether the apex court has an option but to follow the very same route. Of course, it could go slow on the case so that the country is not faced with a situation where Premiers are changed on a monthly basis.

Because, that is evidently what the PPP will do line up Premiers to be sacrificed until the next elections, which, if everything goes as per the democratic calendar, is nine months away. The joke doing the rounds in the few days that the country was without a Premier was that only those who were willing to sit out the next elections need apply as the halo-of-disqualification-for-a-cause had now become one of the perks of the office of Prime Minister. The drawing room gossip was that applicants were being made to sign an undertaking by Zardari that they would not write the letter to the Swiss authorities.

As if the government did not have its hands full with court cases there is the Memogate issue pending besides the Rental Power Plants scam, which has given the new Premier and former Power Minister his nickname Raja Rental the Lahore High Court (LHC) has now closed in on the President directly, asking him to disassociate his office from political activities in accordance with an order issued in May 2011.

In a case pertaining to the President holding dual office that of head of state and co-chairperson of the PPP the LHC had ordered that using the presidency for political activities is inconsistent with the sanctity, dignity, neutrality and independence of the presidency.

Therefore, it is expected that the President of Pakistan would cease the use of the premises of presidency for political meetings of his party. Now contempt of court proceedings have been brought against him for ignoring that order, and Zardari has been given time until September to give up one of the two hats. Again, an order that is unlikely to be implemented.

Given the political nature of many of the cases against the PPP leadership, an editorial in the newspaper Dawn articulated a fairly widely held view. A view is gaining currency that the superior judiciary is single-mindedly pursuing the government to the point where its functioning becomes impossible. What is feared is that between a recalcitrant government and an inflexible judiciary, Pakistans latest tryst with democracy will flounder.

From the day Gilani was removed, the buzz has been that this was a judicial coup, a la soft coup. Given that Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and Zardari have been at daggers drawn since the PPP delayed the formers reinstatement, the NRO nullification was always seen as a bid to squeeze the First Citizen. But the criticism took on a sharper note after Gilanis disqualification, with the order being described as a vendetta judgment.

This is not just because of the history between the Chief Justice and the President but because of recent events that tarnished the messiah-like persona of Justice Chaudhry. There were allegations that his son, Arsalan Iftikhar, had taken huge amounts of money from a property tycoon, Malik Riaz, to influence cases pending against the businessman, who admits to have bankrolled the activities of many to build his empire.

Since Riaz is known to be close to both the military establishment and politicians of all hues, no one was quite sure who set him up to level those charges with detailed documentation. Given the meticulous manner in which the evidence had been gathered, the general view was that it had the footprint of the intelligence agencies, which had been given some grief in recent days by the Supreme Court for their role in a missing persons case. Of course, the civilian government, too, would not have been averse to feeding off the spin-offs.

In fact, the month of June was quite like what May 2011 was for Pakistans feared security establishment. Three successive events the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in a cantonment area near the federal capital, the siege of a naval airbase in Karachi and the killing of a journalist allegedly by intelligence agencies had forced the military on to the back foot last year. June was the month when the new holy cows of Pakistan the higher judiciary and the media, particularly its gladiator-like anchors were found to have feet of clay. Riaz initially trained his guns on Arsalan but by calling him the don of the Supreme Court got the entire pantheon of judges speaking as one and taking the assault on the Chief Justices family as an attack on the judiciary.

In the midst of all this, the property tycoon was caught on tape with two anchorpersons manipulating his interview to the extent that he not only decided what questions they would ask but also had their bosses instruct them to give him uninterrupted say. In a little over a week, the two institutions the judiciary and the media which had sought to act as conscience-keepers and a makeshift accountability system of the blighted nation over the past few years lost some of their halo. Criticising both has now become kosher.

The status of the two in the Pakistani mindscape had grown exponentially since 2007 and represented a beacon of hope to a people conditioned to be suspicious of politicians by the authors of the national narrative the seemingly omnipresent security establishment.

One man and his allegations in the case of the judiciary and his dealings in the case of the media did them in. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. It is generally acknowledged that if Riaz starts singing and he has promised to do so in instalments then an entire can of worms is likely to be opened, exposing everyone.

So, how do the cards look now? Politicians have always been bad. Bloody civilians is how they are apparently referred to in derision by the key arbiters of the nations destiny the security establishment. By extension this makes the present executive look bad. Now the judiciary has become suspect. In comparison, according to the veteran journalist Najam Sethi, the military is looking good. Until now it has not revealed its cards it seldom does but the decision of the military-led Anti Narcotics Force to issue non-bailable arrest warrants against Zardaris first preference for Premier, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, has given credence to certain forces at work.

For now, the Zardari dispensation has managed to keep its flock together including coalition partners by giving the most difficult of them the deputy premiership and 15 ministerial berths but how long can he sustain this? How many Premiers can he sacrifice? With each Premier that he allows to be disqualified, he loses one electable for the next five years.

Given that the main target of this attack on the PPP is the President himself whose term ends in September 2013 there is an apprehension that even if the PPP government is allowed to run its course until March, the interim set-up that will be put in place to oversee the elections will seek an extension on some pretext or the other to ensure that Zardari cannot return for another term.

According to Pakistani law, the incumbent government has to make way for a neutral interim government at the Centre and in the provinces to conduct general elections. This interim government has to be set up through consultation with the opposition. In the absence of a consensus, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) is assigned the role of installing such a government. Though there are some conciliatory moves coming from the government and the opposition in recent days, the two have not agreed on a CEC, and the acting CEC is a sitting judge of the Supreme Court.

In the eventuality of no agreement on the CEC a possibility, in the opinion of Sethi then the interim government will in all likelihood be indirectly selected by the Chief Justice.

The scenario that many anticipate and Sethi paints in The Friday Times is something like this: If at some stage in the run-up to the election, such a technocratic interim government were to apply to the Supreme Court for an extension of its tenure and postponement of elections for one reason or another economic crisis, accountability of politicians to weed out corruption, national security crisis the stage will be set for the judicial coup that critics have feared for sometime now.

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