Posted on Friday, April 27, 2012
in The Friday Times (Editorial)
The Friday Times: Najam Sethi’s Editorial
The Supreme Court has punished Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani for contempt of court (imprisonment for 30 seconds till the rising of the judges) because he “willfully” flouted the court’s orders by not writing a letter to the Swiss authorities to reopen the money laundering cases against Mr (President) Asif Zardari. But the court has also judged that Mr Gillani’s actions have “tended to scandalize, defame and ridicule the court”, thereby attracting the serious consequences of Article 62(1)G of the Constitution which disqualifies him from remaining a member of parliament for five years (hence he cannot remain prime minister any more).
The PPP’s legal eagle, Aitzaz Ahsan, has responded by arguing that the original “civil contempt” charge that was framed by the SC on 13 January 2012 against Mr Gillani referred to “flouting, disregarding and disobeying” the court’s orders and not to any “criminal or judicial contempt” as defined by Article 62(1)G. How then, asks Mr Ahsan, can the court punish Mr Gillani for something for which he was not charged in the first place and which was not defended during the trial?
Mr Ahsan has also clarified his party’s position that Mr Gillani remains prime minister notwithstanding the SC’s conviction until the Speaker of the National Assembly determines within 30 days, as per the Constitution, that the conviction raises no unresolved question of validity before forwarding it to the Election Commission for compliance. But a serious question has indeed arisen about the charge and conviction, hence the Speaker is not obliged to send it to the EC for compliance until this issue is resolved.
These are weighty legal arguments for a review petition by Mr Gillani. Therefore another drawn out legal battle is in the offing. We are faced with a classic constitutional deadlock between the SC and Parliament.
But it is brutal politics rather than constitutional legalities that will determine the fate of Pakistan’s fledgling democracy and collapsing economy. The media and opposition are siding with the SC and want to kick out the PPP government. All that is required to convert the constitutional deadlock into political gridlock is for Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN and assorted independents and small groups to resign en masse from the National Assembly and Punjab provincial assembly and join forces with Imran Khan’s PTI “Tsunami” to launch a violent street protest movement to compel the government to quit and order a new round of elections.
But this is easier said than done. The last time such a threat was hurled at the PPP was in March 2009 when a “long march” by Mr Sharif’s party in support of Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s restoration was launched from Lahore to Islamabad that compelled the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, to lean on President Zardari to relent. This time round, however, any such intervention by General Kayani is more likely to lead to a derailment of the democratic system than to any fresh general election that brings a credible and workable government to power. There are several reasons for this line of reasoning.
First, President Zardari will not quietly defer to the army chief because the exit of his government will make him extremely vulnerable to the SC’s onslaught. Second, General Kayani is not likely to stick his neck out only to allow Mr Zardari to ride back into coalition-power after new elections on the basis of the current electoral arithmetic of Sindh and Southern Punjab. Third, the prospect of Nawaz Sharif replacing Mr Zardari as prime minister is, to say the least, decidedly discomforting for the military, given Mr Sharif’s track record.
The “independent” judiciary under Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry is also in populist overdrive. It is in no mood to defer to “criminal and incompetent elected civilians”. So it might prefer to underwrite a non-elected government that is subservient to it rather than one thrown up by fresh elections. If the military and judiciary join forces, exactly such a political and constitutional crisis as the current one might create the perfect pretext for establishing a neutral caretaker government for an extended period of time to clean up the system, knock out the PPP and PMLN and pave the way for Imran Khan’s PTI in due course.
Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif realize their individual and collective compulsions no less than their difficulties. The trick for Mr Zardari is to resist the SC and hang on to power so that he can decide when to call the next elections before the military’s patience runs out with the constitutional gridlock. The trick for Mr Sharif is to pressure Mr Zardari to concede an early election without pushing the system over the edge and give the military a pretext to jump the gun.
Meanwhile, the economy is on the brink of default because political instability is hampering efforts for reforms required by the debt-servicing IMF. Equally, the US-Pak relationship needs urgent mending before desperately needed funds can pump up the economy. The sooner there is regime change democratically to resolve such issues, the better.