The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has apparently decided to accept the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and to try to avoid calling new elections. The job now is to choose a new Prime Minister and keep the minor coalition partners on side. As it is, elections are not scheduled until early next year. The Electoral Commission (EC), which has 90 days to make its own ruling under the Constitution, has come in early and endorsed the dismissal, which is backdated from the time of Mr Gilani’s conviction on 26 April. Rule of law apparently pertains, at least for now.
It seems the PPP had little option but to comply once the EC came out in support of the Court. Unless backed by the powerful military (which it is not), the PPP would have had a difficult time in defying the Court. To take to the streets would have, effectively, meant taking to the streets against itself. (It could not have done so against the military, which is not nominally in control; nor against the Court, which would have meant defying the Constitution, further weakening the slender hold of civilian government). If it had called a fresh election it may well have lost, given Pakistan’s chronic power shortage, which is occurring during a time of recession and summer heat. So, it will appoint a new Prime Minister and try to hang on until next year’s general elections.
The important questions are: what does it mean for Pakistan; what does it mean (if anything) for the AfPak situation; and why did the government not simply comply with the original court order to write to Switzerland requesting investigation of President Asif Ali Zadari’s alleged Swiss account(s), which is the requirement under Swiss law to trigger any investigation by the Swiss authorities?
Let’s take the last, easiest, question first. Mr Gilani’s claim that to have written to the Swiss would have undermined the role of the President simply will not wash. Given all that has transpired, it would have been far easier, if President Zardari had nothing to hide, simply to have written the letter and then said ‘see, we told you so’. So, the strong implication is that President Zardari does, indeed, have something to hide, which is an issue in itself that has so far largely been overlooked in the national and international commentary.
The effect on Pakistan and the AfPak situation – and the current stand-off with NATO over closure of Pakistan’s borders to NATO supplies – is more difficult to assess.
Some say the majority of lawyers – who, after all, demonstrated extensively against the Zardari Government in its earlier days – lean towards the conservative, Islamic, side of politics. It is also claimed that Chief Justice Chaudhry, who has long been at loggerheads with Mr Zardari over the latter’s refusal initially to reappoint him as Chief Justice following the resumption of civilian rule, not only is opposed to the Zardari Government, but has military leanings. While the former may well be the case, the latter is less likely since it was General Musharraf who dismissed Mr Chaudhry in the first place. It seems, on the whole, unlikely that the military is behind the dismissal: after all, what would they really have to gain, since they have, in the past, been equally opposed to the opposition Pakistan Muslim League, which was in government when Musharraf staged his coup.
More likely, this is a relatively simple case of judicial muscle flexing and a desire to clean up Pakistani politics, with an element of revenge-seeking behaviour. But unfortunately it is unlikely in the shorter term to lead to any indictment of President Zardari for corruption, which would have been an important step forward for the corruption-plagued nation.
Should the PPP lose the next election, however, then the new government would doubtless move quickly to proceed to examine President Zardari’s accounts. But should that occur, it would simply be passed off as politics, which is the exact claim President Zardari has made about the initial accusation of corruption in the first place. Indeed, Pakistani politics is “tribal” in the sense that right is considered to be inexorably associated with political adherence rather than any objective, ethical consideration. Until this nexus is broken, it is difficult to see Pakistani politics moving forward from its blighted state.
What does this mean for the AfPak situation and resolution of the current impasse over supply of NATO across the Pakistani border? Whatever happens is, in itself, unlikely significantly to affect the conduct of Pakistan’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan and the United States. The reason is that the AfPak policy is driven far more by restraint than active policy – the key is what the government cannot do rather than what it can do. Given its weakness vis-à-vis the military and Islamist militants (who have been demonstrating in the streets against reopening the border), and given the impending election and the current debacle over power, that weakness may make it difficult for the government to act in support of a highly unpopular US. If anything, the present situation over Mr Gilani’s resignation only further exacerbates that weakness.
Dr Sandy Gordon
This post first appeared in South Asia Masala on 20 June 2012.