June 19, 2012

Political Instability Rises as Pakistani Court Ousts Premier



 


By DECLAN WALSH
Published: June 19, 2012

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's combative top judge made his most audacious foray into judicial activism yet on Tuesday, firing Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, emptying the cabinet and forcing President Asif Ali Zardari to reset his fragile governing coalition.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry's order was the culmination of a three-year transformation that has injected the once supine Supreme Court into the heart of Pakistan's power equation. Yet in doing so, Justice Chaudhry has ventured deeply into the political fray, drawing accusations of partisan, even grudge-driven, prosecutions.

"This is a court that is determined to establish itself as a player to be respected and feared," said Cyril Almeida, a political analyst with the newspaper Dawn. "First it was elbows out; now it's come out swinging — and it's knocked out the prime minister."

The true target of Justice Chaudhry's order, though, may have been President Zardari. The two men have been at odds since 2009, when Mr. Zardari opposed Justice Chaudhry's reinstatement. They have engaged in proxy combat through the courts ever since; indeed, Mr. Gilani's dismissal stemmed directly from his refusal to heed court orders to pursue a corruption inquiry against the president.

Tuesday's decision presented a blunt challenge to the president's authority; one critic, the human rights campaigner and lawyer Asma Jahangir, called it a "soft coup." And its disruptive effects on his governing Pakistan Peoples Party could lead to a new round of national elections well ahead of their scheduled date next spring.

For Justice Chaudhry, the action also offered a convenient diversion from an awkward turn of events: less than a week ago, the judge found himself explaining his personal finances in court after a billionaire property developer with close ties to both the Pakistan Peoples Party and the military came out with explosive corruption allegations against his family.

Now, those accusations, which damaged the judge's anticorruption credentials and may have tarnished his populist appeal, are likely to be sidelined amid the political maneuvering over his ruling on Tuesday.

Experts said the judge's dismissal of Mr. Gilani was legally contentious, but regardless, the Pakistan Peoples Party responded with uncharacteristic meekness. The party secretary general, Qamar Zaman Kaira, urged supporters to show "patience and restraint," indicating that the government did not want its clash with the court to spill over into street violence, at least for the moment.

The muted reaction highlighted the cardinal principle of government under Mr. Zardari: ensuring his political survival, even at the cost of sacrificing his most loyal lieutenants. Others have already fallen, mostly at the hands of the court.

In November, Mr. Zardari jettisoned his ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, after the powerful military pushed claims that, in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden's death in May 2011, Mr. Haqqani had secretly approached the Obama administration for help in averting a military coup. Mr. Haqqani insisted he did not write the letter seeking help, but under pressure from generals and judges, he resigned.

More recently the Supreme Court forced Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Mr. Zardari's political enforcer within the fractious governing coalition, to resign his post and surrender his British passport over rules that forbid officials to hold dual citizenship.

Other political parties, however, have largely escaped censure from the court.

Mr. Zardari's strategy, said Mr. Almeida, the analyst, is to ride out the crises until the elections. "It's a strategy of rolling with the punches, knowing that no rival has the ability to deliver a knockout punch and, in the absence of that, keeping your head down," he said.

Mr. Gilani has, to a large degree, found himself caught in the cross-fire between Mr. Zardari and Justice Chaudhry. His dismissal stems from longstanding court demands that he write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting that they reopen a dormant corruption investigation into Mr. Zardari's finances in that country dating to the 1990s.

Mr. Gilani has refused to do so, arguing that as president, Mr. Zardari has immunity from prosecution. After two years of delaying tactics, the court's patience snapped last January when it issued Mr. Gilani an ultimatum: write to the Swiss authorities or face contempt charges. Mr. Gilani chose contempt.



"What will happen to independence of judiciary if speaker or Parliament tries to scrutinize judicial rulings?" Justice Chaudhry told the court on Tuesday. "No one can undo a court verdict except a court of appeals."

The main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, welcomed the Supreme Court decision. "This is real accountability," he told Geo television, calling for early elections. "Otherwise," he said, "this government will embark on a path of destruction."

Mr. Zardari, on the other hand, may seek to head off elections as long as possible, in part because his government is being battered by accusations of mismanagement over the country's continuing electricity delivery failures. In Punjab, the country's most populous province, mobs angered over chronic power failures rampaged through several cities for the third day running, clashing violently with the police and burning vehicles and offices. The daily blackouts — up to 20 hours long in places — have left many people miserable and jobless in the grueling summer heat.

"Law has become subservient to politics, but this government had it coming. It has been singularly inept," said Najam Sethi, a veteran commentator. "They had six months to anticipate the power crisis, and now it is upon them."

Early Wednesday morning, Pakistani television stations reported that the Pakistan Peoples Party would nominate Makhdoom Shahabuddin, a longtime Zardari loyalist and departing minister for textiles, to replace Mr. Gilani. Other names that were circulating included Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and various stalwarts from the party's political heartland in Sindh Province and southern Punjab.

Any candidate, however, will need the approval of the party's coalition partners — smaller, ethnically centered parties based in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar that are likely to extract a high price from Mr. Zardari in exchange for votes in Parliament.

It was unclear what impact the decision would have on troubled negotiations with the United States to reopen NATO supply lines through Pakistan into Afghanistan.

In Washington, the State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "Our hope and expectation is that we will continue to be able to work with Pakistanis to try to finish some of these issues."

For his part, Mr. Zardari canceled a planned visit to Russia in order to contain the crisis. Officials said he would announce the party's next step on Wednesday.

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