After the verdict
/ 27 April 2012
A judicial conviction in Pakistan has made history. The fact that the Supreme Court of Pakistan has convicted no other than the Chief Executive, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani — for contempt of court under Article 204 (2) of the Constitution— is shocking news in itself but the post-verdict scenario is likely to see bigger news being made as the state descends further into political uncertainty. Not to forget the hobnobbing in the ruling circles that is likely to escalate tensions to another level.
The implications from this decision are likely to set the pace for the next elections that are looming large on the horizon. Held in contempt of court for refusing to write a letter to the Swiss authorities for opening corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari, Gilani may have no doubt proven his loyalty, but, has in the process initiated a new tussle between the state institutions.
Islamabad, all abuzz about the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government’s counter strategy, is now the hot seat for fervent political machinations framed within a legal perspective.
An appeal is to be filed against the contempt conviction, a decision taken by the cabinet and the ruling party’s coalition partners. While the right to appeal the Supreme Court’s seven-member bench’s decision may earn the premier some more time, the question is how long can this delay strategy be played out. No letter to reopen the corruption cases against President Zardari is likely to be sent out from a government headed by a PPP premier.
So even if Gilani’s counsel fails in gaining him exemption from disqualification through an appeal — which according to the court ruling is on the cards, once the Speaker of Parliament refers this to the Election Commission — and other options are exhausted — including that of the president asking the prime minister to continue in office till a suitable replacement is found —the issue is hardly going to be buried. It can be delayed for months until the next election even if a new PPP-nominated prime minister takes over the reins from Gilani and is instructed to carry out the Supreme Court’s missives.
While the prime minister’s counsel has clarified that the court’s decision does not translate into his automatic or immediate disqualification, the battleground for the suspension of the verdict’s operation and for filing the appeal is now being laid out.
Unfortunately, the whole exercise that dominated national headlines since many months is being cast in a different mould by the government. Allegations of judicial persecution of the PPP — following a previous judgment resulting in the execution of PPP founder, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — are doing the rounds along with the threat to democracy. By using the presidential immunity card, the PPP has so far refused to follow the court’s repeated entreaties.
Thursday’s verdict is likely to steer the events in another direction. It will also trigger renewed wrangling between the ruling party and the opposition that lately have been engaged in a bitter exchange over governance issues and corruption ever since pre-election gatherings started taking place countrywide.
Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) chairman Mian Nawaz Sharif has, in fact, urged Gilani to respect the court’s verdict and step down, a demand being repeated by other opposition figures as well. But expecting Gilani to do so is unrealistic since the decision to appeal the verdict has already been made.
As a result, the next few weeks and possibly months will see the nation engaged in a political fever of sorts. Sky-high inflation, a dismal energy shortage and rising fuel prices are only the tip of the iceberg. The economic situation is far from healthy and with the annual budget scheduled for June, the pressure on the government to deliver a package that appeases a disgruntled electorate is especially high this time around. While many dismiss a government’s performance as crucial to scoring on the ballot, citing constituency politics as the main driving force, the 2008 elections that took place under Pervez Musharraf should serve a grim reminder of how the electoral criteria may be changing even in rural areas.
Blaming glaring gaps in governance and economic performance on the judiciary’s insistence on opening the corruption cases against the president is hardly going to win the PPP the sweeping victory of the last election following the tragic assassination of late Benazir Bhutto. More needs to be done in managing the latest debacle in keeping with constitutional and judicial guidelines as well as improving performance.
For now it is hoped that the two state pillars are able to resolve the standoff. It is incumbent on the executive to respect the judiciary’s decision and take the necessary steps to dissolve this unnecessary political crisis. Loyalty to the state should come first before loyalty to any individual or political party.