Will Gilani survive the judicial tsunami?
A political maelstrom has engulfed Pakistan. The unpopular PPP-led regime may survive under a new leader. But Yusuf Raza Gilani’s days as prime minister appear numbered after he was served notice for being in contempt of the Supreme Court.
The PPP leadership’s political isolation is complete, pitted as it is against the Army in the Memogate scandal and against the Court for refusing to reopen graft cases in which President Asif Zardari and his late wife Benazir Bhutto got immunity under the national reconciliation ordinance (NRO) found illegal in 2009 by the top judiciary.
The 18th amendment to the Constitution transferred to the premier the powers once enjoyed by the president. It is for this reason that Gilani is in the line of fire for disobeying the Court and being out of step with his constitutional obligations.
The offence of contempt brought against the PM is explained by Article 190 of the constitution that makes it mandatory for the executive “to come to the aid” of the apex court. The basis of the contempt notice to Gilani was laid by the apex court while rejecting a review petition against its judgment in the NRO case. It laid down that “persons responsible for non-compliance of the Court’s judgments can be punished for contempt for disobedience.”
The PM has decided to present himself before the Court on January 19 to explain his conduct. But he’s unlikely to reopen cases against Benazir in Swiss courts as the PPP considers it blasphemous to put its charismatic leader on trial posthumously.
In seeking to protect Benazir’s legacy, the PPP seeks to revive memories of Zulfikar Bhutto’s “judicial murder” at Gen. Zia’s instance. The Punjabi-dominated civil-military establishment’s anti-Sindhi bias can also be played up by underscoring the fact that three PPP regimes were sent packing before completion of their tenures in the past. But the prospects of such slogans whipping up sympathy look bleak amid overwhelming public disenchantment from Gilani’s four-year rule.
The focus is more on the PM because Zardari is safe for the time being under article 248 of the very constitution Gilani is accused of violating. The said provision extends the president immunity from court proceedings.
A leadership change in the existing Assembly isn’t ruled out by Pakistani experts if Gilani stands his ground against reopening cases against Benazir. That might buy the PPP time until the February-March senate elections that will get it the much needed majority in the upper house in the run-up to early elections.
The PPP’s final course of action will depend on the position of its allies in the coalition — the ANP of Asfandyar Wali, the PML (Q) of Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain and Altaf Hussain’s MQM. These parties attended a meeting that advised the PM to appear before the Court.
The PPP’s allies as also the Opposition parties fear that further escalation of the tussle between the judiciary and the executive could pave the way for the Army’s intervention. For the same reason the SC showed judicial restraint by flagging the option of fresh polls in its order rejecting review of its judgment negating immunity from graft cases under the NRO. In the latest move it only asked the PM to show cause for being in contempt of its order to reopen probes against Benazir.
The institutional search for a middle ground has thus far proved to be elusive. It’ll be interesting to watch whether that’s the end of the story?