The revolving door of Pakistani politics

The revolving door of Pakistani politics

President Asif Ali Zardari speaks at the IISS. Photo IISS

By Antoine Levesques, Research Analyst and Project Coordinator

Can Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf manage to stay in office until elections due by March next year?  If he does it will guarantee that a civilian government serves a full term for the first time in Pakistan’s history. But the Supreme Court recently disqualified Ashraf’s predecessor, Yusuf Raja Gilani, from office and already has the substitute PM in its sights, just two months after his swearing-in.

 

Ashraf has been summoned to appear in court on 27 August, in the latest instalment of a long-running dispute between the country’s executive and judiciary. At its heart lies a bitter rivalry between Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and President Asif Ali Zardari (above), of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Grudgingly reinstated by Zardari’s government in March 2009 because of public pressure, Chaudhry has been pressing to have an old Swiss corruption case against the president reopened.

The government says that, as head of state, Zardari is immune from prosecution and that to bring an investigation would be unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court disagrees and ordered Zardari’s first prime minister, Gilani, to write to the Swiss authorities asking them to revive proceedings. When Gilani refused, he was charged with contempt of court. After convicting him in April, the Supreme Court ruled in June that this barred him from being a member of parliament.

The government tried to protect Ashraf from the same fate, but a hastily passed law to give government ministers immunity from contempt proceedings has been struck down by the Supreme Court. Although the government has appealed that decision, the ball is now in the judicial court. Ashraf is not expected to remain long in the top job.

Gilani said this week that if Ashraf were ousted it would be ‘tantamount to breaking up’ Pakistan. However, the government might be able to cling on until the elections by replacing him with yet another candidate. It would just be left in even more of a lame-duck position, when none of its leaders is held in particularly high esteem by the Pakistani public.

President Zardari, the former husband of assassinated presidential candidate and former PM Benazir Bhutto, has long been dogged by allegations of corruption.

The graft case Chief Justice Chaudhry wants reopened dates back to 2003, when Zardari and Bhutto were found guilty in absentia of using Swiss bank accounts to launder kickbacks from two Swiss companies in the 1990s. The couple appealed and the Swiss dropped the case finally in 2008, at the request of the military government of President General Pervez Musharraf.

This was a promise made under a 2007 amnesty to allow Bhutto to return from self-imposed exile and run for office. However, Chaudhry and his fellow justices declared the amnesty unconstitutional in 2009 and said that Zardari therefore no longer enjoyed immunity.

The new prime minister is equally unpopular, because of his earlier role as water and power minister, in a county plagued by power shortages. He has been accused of corruption over the importation of short-term (or ‘rental’) power stations, although he denies the allegations.

The PPP’s recent showing in a by-election to fill Gilani’s safe parliamentary seat, which his son only narrowly won, shows that going to the polls early may be risky for the party if Ashraf loses his battle with the judiciaryNevertheless, the groundwork has been laid for an interim caretaker government, and an electoral commissioner appointed.

The main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) led by Nawaz Sharif, has made some political mileage out of the government’s judicial woes; and a series of huge public rallies late last year show that the PPP may face stiffer competition in the 2013 poll from the Pakistan Tehriq-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by Imran Khan, the former cricketer, who is unlikely to boycott the polls as he did in 2008. (Following Khan’s recent ‘tsunami’ of success, the PML-N has also tried to tar him with corruption allegations.) Musharraf has also not entirely abandoned hopes of returning to Pakistan to participate in the election.

In such a contested environment, some believe, the PPP may have something to gain by putting up a stronger fight against the judiciary.

Certainly, a major issue in the entire saga has been the role of the Supreme Court in Pakistani politics. Chaudhry considered the judiciary instrumental in the struggle to return Pakistan to democracy after nearly a decade of military rule, and public protests helped return him to the bench after he was dismissed by the General Musharraf in 2007. Under Chaudhry’s renewed stewardship since 2009 the court has developed a populist and politically activist bent, championing the rights of ordinary Pakistanis, calling officials to account and involving itself in areas – such as food and fuel prices, planning and the environment – normally controlled by the government.

In doing so, it has emerged as a third player in the traditional tussle between Pakistan’s civilian politicians and military. It has tried to hold Pakistan’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate to account over the latter’s frequently disputed treatment of civilians, and questioned the military’s conduct in the restive province of Baluchistan. For this and other initiatives to improve the lot of ordinary Pakistanis, it won widespread support. But some commentators now believe it has gone too far in removing an elected prime minister.

Several scandals have erupted as the three-way power struggle between the government, military and judiciary has heated up. A row broke out last autumn between the military and government when the existence of an unsigned government memo to the US military was made public. The note reportedly offered a reorganisation of the ISI in exchange for US assistance in staving off any military coup after the US killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil. Infuriated, army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani ordered an investigation. In June, Zardari was cleared of any role in the note’s preparation. However, the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, was forced to resign and may now face charges of treason – although he also denies writing the memo.

‘Memo-gate’ led to some other tit-for-tat personnel changes, with PM Gilani sacking Defence Secretary Khalid Naeem Lodhi and replacing him with a civilian, at the same time as the military pointedly reshuffled the leadership of a unit famed for spearheading coups. (The top civilian defence job has since reverted to a retired military post-holder.)

Meanwhile, a businessman supposedly with close PPP ties has levelled allegations of corruptionagainst Chief Justice Chaudhry’s son. The Mehran Bank scandal of the early 1990s was also revived with the bank’s former chief telling the Supreme Court recently that he had funnelled ISI funds to rivals of the PPP before the 1990 election. Although he denies this, the PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif was allegedly among the recipients.

Some commentators argue that all of this jostling for position is just a necessary realignment of power between the organs of state after the years of Musharraf’s military rule. However, others worry that the judiciary is trying to bring down the executive. They fear that in weakening the civilian government, the court may precipitate a coup (even though the military is unpopular domestically and has its hands full fighting the Pakistan Taliban and other militants).

Relations between Islamabad and Washington have warmed recently, after Washington’s apology for mistakenly killing Pakistani troops in November 2011 and the reopening of Pakistani supply routes for NATO convoys into Afghanistan.

One thing is certain, however: that a civilian government in Islamabad faced with a tanking economy, frequent power outages and a longstanding insurgency finds itself having to devote more efforts to fighting for its political life than in addressing these.

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