Those who used to say that the President, Farooq Leghari, is, and will always remain, a PPP “jiyala” who doesn’t have the guts to put the national interest above blind loyalty to Benazir Bhutto must get ready to eat humble pie. Mr Leghari has now publicly demonstrated that he means business and will not allow Ms Bhutto, or anyone else for that matter, to trample over the constitution and get away with the pre-meditated murder of state institutions and the public interest. Some background information is, however, necessary to put Mr Leghari’s recent “interventions” in perspective.
Like many of her friends who have drifted away from her in disillusionment, Mr Leghari is known to have long urged Ms Bhutto to run a clean and efficient ship. He has publicly drawn attention to the menace of corruption and asked the government to make its economic and financial decision-making apparatus more transparent. The President has been worried about the state of the economy and he has continuously communicated his concerns to Ms Bhutto and her advisors. And, in a move applauded everywhere except perhaps in certain government circles last December, he used his discretionary powers to appoint General Jehangir Karamat, a soldier of impeccable credentials, as chief of army staff.
In March this year, however, Mr Leghari found himself in an awkward position when Ms Bhutto took umbrage against the Supreme Court’s judgement ordering her government to fire 20 judges appointed by her earlier because they didn’t fulfill the court’s criteria for appointment. The President is thought to have advised the PM, in her own interests, to accept the decision instead of raging against the CJ unwisely. When Ms Bhutto spurned this advice, relations between Justice Shah and premier Bhutto deteriorated to such an extent that she flew into a rage and demanded that the President fire the CJ.
Stunned by Ms Bhutto’s recklessness and troubled by the potentially far reaching consequences of such a move, President Leghari urged Ms Bhutto to cool down, meet with the CJ and sort out things amicably. In due course, he paved the way for a couple of meetings between Ms Bhutto and Justice Shah. But Ms Bhutto was still in no mood to relent. Soon thereafter, she filed a Presidential Reference before the SC challenging its judgment and followed this up by lodging a Review Petition as well. The Reference, which was rudely drafted, was duly returned by the SC because it hadn’t been shown to Mr Leghari or been signed by him.
Appalled, Mr Leghari was at his wits end when Ms Bhutto decided upon another tack to undermine the judgment. Prodded by the government, justice Shafi Mohammadi (one of the 20 judges affected by the judgment) of the Federal Shariat Court, which lies exclusively in the President’s domain, launched an attack on the SC and the CJ. When the President’s attention was drawn by the CJ to this provocative act, he thought fit to privately advise the government to remove Justice Shafi from the FSC. When Ms Bhutto still refused to heed his advice, he was constrained to warn that he would take action under his discretionary powers and fire Justice Shafi from the FSC. An open conflict was averted only when Ms Bhutto saw the writing on the wall, removed Justice Shafi from the FSC and persuaded him to submit his resignation from the Sindh High Court.
Ms Bhutto has consistently refused to implement the SC’s judgment. Instead of firing (“de-notifying”) all the affected judges as demanded by the SC, she has evaded the issue by nudging some of them to submit their resignations to her government. Until some time ago, the President was wont to accept these resignations as “advised” by the prime minister. However, problems arose when the CJ formally wrote to the President objecting to this modus operandi on Ms Bhutto’s part and asked him to “intervene” and compel the government to abide by the SC’s decision in letter and in spirit.
Instead of acting unilaterally, which might have fueled controversy, President Leghari passed on the CJ’s letter to the PM for information and comment. Similarly, the PM’s comments on the CJ’s letter were passed on to the CJ, including her extraordinary claim that “the judiciary was part of the government”. The President also wrote back to the CJ, with a copy to the PM, asking him to explain how and under what presidential powers the SC wanted the president to “intervene” in order to enforce its judgment. On the 21st of September, when it was clear that Ms Bhutto remained unmoved, the President finally sought to resolve the deadlock between the PM and the CJ by filing a formal Reference with the SC asking it to inform him of the scope of his constitutional powers to appoint or denotify judges. Having done so, he refused to entertain any further requests from the government to accept the resignations of any more judges until the matter was legally and constitutionally sorted out.
President Leghari has also incurred the wrath of Ms Bhutto on the issue of corruption and how to combat it. For two years, the President has privately urged the PM to take concrete steps to make her government more transparent. But Ms Bhutto has, if anything, connived in making the problem more intractable and her government less defensible. Last year Imran Khan put corruption on the top of his agenda for reform. When the crowds roared their disapproval of corruption, opposition leader Nawaz Sharif was quick to co-opt the slogan and stand up in parliament to demand a judicial commission on accountability. Despite ringing denouncements of Surreygate, however, Ms Bhutto refused to accept the demand, forcing Mr Sharif to address his complaint to President Leghari. The President passed on Mr Sharif’s demand for an accountability commission to the PM. When she replied in an evasive manner, he duly passed on her views to Mr Sharif. When Mr Sharif persisted with his demand for a judicial commission, and the press supported this demand, the President thought fit to write a letter to both houses of parliament endorsing the demand and proposing enlargements in it. Ms Bhutto’s majordomo, Naseerullah Babar, then sought to belittle the President’s proposal by punching holes in it.
President Farooq Leghari’s recent meeting with Mr Nawaz Sharif has come in the wake of these developments, even though the President has long said that the doors of Aiwan i Sadr are always open to the leader of the opposition. There is a background to this meeting also. Last year, channels of communication were opened between the camp of the opposition leader and the Aiwan i Sadr, mainly through the good offices of a Muslim League leader in Lahore who has worked closely with Mr Leghari in the past. The purpose of this contact was to affect a meeting between Mr Sharif and President Leghari so that the acrimony of the past, when Mr Leghari was in the PPP and Mr Sharif was prime minister, could be buried and a normal working relationship established between them in the larger national interest. The President was also keen to act as a bridge between Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto so that the two leaders could reduce their mutual hostilities in the interests of democracy. However, the meeting did not materialise earlier because Mr Sharif was not sufficiently persuaded of the President’s independence and neutrality even though he had long given up attacking the President in public.
Following President Leghari’s public assertion of independence and authority recently, however, Mr Sharif had a change of heart and authorised a couple of lieutenants to arrange a meeting with the President. When Mr Leghari welcomed this opportunity to exchange views with Mr Sharif, a meeting was duly organised. In this meeting, Mr Sharif and Mr Leghari recapitulated their own perceptions of events since 1993 and their own roles therein. The President assured Mr Sharif of his neutrality and reiterated his commitment to democracy, rule of law and constitution. He explained that he had written to both houses of parliament asking them to find ways and means to combat corruption because it was bringing the political system into disrepute. When Mr Sharif presented a detailed critique of government and urged the President to exercise his powers under 58-2-B of the constitution to dismiss Ms Bhutto and order fresh elections, Mr Leghari noted the opposition leader’s concerns and told him that if and when he felt that such a course had become absolutely necessary in the national interest, he would not hesitate to exercise his constitutional duties. He also assured Mr Sharif that when the next elections are held he would guarantee an impartial caretaker administration as well as an independent election commission.
President Leghari met with PM Bhutto two days later. The two leaders exchanged their respective points of view. Ms Bhutto wanted to know if Mr Leghari was interested in “sharing power” with her. No, said Mr Leghari, that was not the issue at all. He had taken certain steps in the larger interests of the country and these had been based on his given constitutional powers. Where there was some doubt about the scope of his powers, he had referred the matter to the SC for clarification. He told the PM to implement the SC’s decision as quickly as possible because it was unconstitutional to undermine it. He urged her to join hands with the opposition and set up a credible accountability commission against corruption. He drew her attention to the deteriorating law and order situation across the country and insisted that the government do something about it quickly. When Ms Bhutto wondered why he had not waited some time before sending his Reference to the SC the day after her brother Murtaza was murdered, he explained that matters of state could not be kept pending on account of personal predicaments. At any rate, he said, he had done so because he wanted to give her time to voluntarily implement the SC’s decision before the SC opened for its winter session in October and found to its anger and dismay that the PM was still dragging her feet on the issue.
Following this meeting, the PPP has spread the word that all differences between the President and the PM have been sorted out and the government is stable once again. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many areas of conflict and tension abound. President Leghari has certainly nudged Ms Bhutto to implement the SC’s decision on 30th September because it was his constitutional duty to do so. Now comes the question of appointing new judges to the various High Courts of the country. If the SC says he has a particular role to play in this area, he will certainly play such a role, even if Ms Bhutto is opposed to it. the President sees corruption as a major threat to the working of the constitution and wants the government and opposition to agree to the establishment of a judicial commission to uproot the menace from the corridors of power. If this is not forthcoming, he may be expected to exercise his powers in the public interest and push this issue to its logical conclusion even if it upsets Ms Bhutto. He wants a perceptible and quick improvement in the law and order situation, especially in Punjab, and if Ms Bhutto cannot do something about it, he may be encouraged to take certain constitutional steps to do the needful. And so on.
There is no doubt about it. President Farooq Leghari is determined to assert his constitutional authority to stop the erosion of state institutions at the hands of reckless, corrupt, squabbling politicians and bureaucrats who have brought parliamentary democracy into such disrepute. If Ms Bhutto continues to flout the law and the constitution, as she has done so provocatively in the last two years, she cannot expect any measure of sympathy from Mr Leghari.