By Malik Ayub Sumbal
ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s ruling party and its coalition members are scrambling to nominate a new prime minister following the disqualification of Yousuf Raza Gilani for contempt of court.
The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that as Gilani had failed to appeal an April 26 conviction for contempt of court, he was barred from office.
The historic verdict was a major blow for the government in its ongoing power struggle with the judiciary. Unless the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) can find a suitable replacement for Gilani this week, general elections due in 2013 could take place this year.
Three names have been put forward: Minister for Water and Power Ahmed Mukhtar, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, the textiles minister, and Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the commerce minister. Mukhtar, a senior PPP leader and former defense minister, is considered the favorite. Officials have said that if the PPP and its coalition partners can agree on a nominee this week, he or she will then just need the approval of parliament before taking charge. The PPP-led governing coalition commands a majority in parliament.
However, this “judicial coup”, as some analysts are calling it, is still likely to push the country towards a new phase of political instability. Islamabad already had its hands full with a raging Taliban insurgency, financial crisis and deteriorating relations with long-time ally the United States.
Gilani was convicted in April for “ridiculing” the judiciary as he had not obeyed a court order from November 2009 that he draft a letter to the Swiss government asking it to reopen a multi-million-dollar corruption investigation into President Asif Ali Zardari.
Gilani had long insisted Zardari had immunity as head of state and that writing to the Swiss would be a violation of Pakistan’s constitution, and on Tuesday, the court said this April conviction had “attained finality as no appeal was filed against the judgement”.
Under Pakistan’s constitution, anyone convicted of “defaming” or “ridiculing” the judiciary is barred from being an member of parliament.
As ATol wrote in Swift justice for Pakistan’s premier (Asia Times Online, May 1, 2012) the court order was related to the conviction of Zardari and his slain wife, Benazir Bhutto, in 2003 by a Swiss court for money laundering.
[T]ens of millions of dollars were found stashed in Swiss banks in the couple’s names. The provenance of those funds was shady, and they were due to be sentenced when Pakistan’s then-military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, came to their rescue [in 2009] with a one-man law wiping the slate clean of a raft of cases pending in the Pakistani courts, for corruption and embezzlement of billions, against the couple.
Musharraf’s law, entitled the National Reconciliation Order, or NRO, halted proceedings against Benazir and Zardari in the Swiss courts, as well as giving amnesty to thousands of politicians, political workers and bureaucrats who were accused of corruption, embezzlement, money laundering, murder and terrorism.
The standoff between the judiciary and the government began in December 2009 when the apex court annulled this graft amnesty.
According to sources in the Election Commission of Pakistan, Gilani is now disqualified from any political role for five years and cannot hold any official post in the PPP. His photograph has been removed from the Prime Minister’s Office and the national flag removed from his vehicles, amid other protocol.
The court has also backdated the disqualification to 26 April, raising questions over decisions Gilani has made in office since then – including on the country’s budget.
Opposition figures have hailed the court’s decision, saying this was a victory for the rule of law. One of them, Ahsan Iqbal, told the Washington Post that this shows “all people are equal in the eyes of the law.”
“I don’t see any threat to democracy after this decision,” Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a former foreign minister, said on national television. The government could appoint a new prime minister or hold quick elections, he said, “so we see the democratic process is on the move.”
However, some observers have accused Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry of overstepping the Supreme Court’s boundaries in recent years, with Gilani’s disqualification seen as further evidence of a personal vendetta against Zardari.
Feisal Hussain Naqvi, a Lahore-based lawyer who often works in the Supreme Court, told the Wall Street Journal Asia that the decision should’ve been made by the Election Commission, an independent body.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has said that by consistently disobeying the court order to re-open corruption cases against Zardari, Gilani not only dishonored the judiciary but also hurt his own dignity.
“No matter who becomes the new prime minister, he will have to write the letter [to the Swiss authorities to open graft cases against Zardari],” the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) chief told the Pakistani Geo News channel.
With the PPP government likely to survive the fallout from the disqualification and Zardari emerging relatively unscathed, is is left to Gilani to bear the brunt of his decision to act as the president’s bodyguard on the corruption issue.
Malik Ayub Sumbal is a senior investigative journalist based in Islamabad. Malik won the Syracuse University Mirror Award for 2012. He can be reached at email@example.com
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved)