Pakistan is currently on the brink of widespread confusion and disorder; a confrontation between the three most powerful arms of the state — the judiciary, the government and the military — are threatening to bring the troubled country to a standstill.
In brief, Pakistan’s Supreme Court is threatening Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party with contempt of court. His alleged crime? His refusal to open a renewed investigation into President (and Party leader) Asif Ali Zardari’s alleged links to a corruption scandal. Gilani asserts that Zardari’s public office provides him immunity from prosecution. The Supreme Court contends that it does not, the court having struck down this immunity clause in 2009. If convicted, Gilani faces six months in prison, and the possibility of being removed from office, which may precipitate early elections.
Zardari stands accused of having used bank accounts in Switzerland, a country whose banks are famous for their secrecy, to launder as much as $12 million received as bribes by him and his late wife, former President Benazir Bhutto, for the granting of highly coveted government contracts.
The Key Players
Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 in a violent attack. Zardari is widely believed to have come to power on a wave of public sympathy following his wife’s death, which the army claims was carried out by the al Qaeda, and which the PPP claims was carried out by the country’s shadowy but extremely powerful secret service, the ISI.
Zardari has already served 11 years in prison on charges of corruption, although he was never convicted, and his allies claimed the charges were politically motivated. Zardari’s reputation is already a shambles in Pakistan (he is known as Mr 10 per cent for his alleged predilection for bribes), and analysts suggest that he may not be willing to take on another barrage of corruption charges, especially with a general election approaching.
Gilani is vice-chairman of the Peoples’ Party, and current Prime Minister of Pakistan following his party’s victory in the 2008 general elections. His government is less than a year away from becoming the first in Pakistan’s history to complete a full term. Gilani has himself spent five years in prison, following a conviction on corruption charges instituted in 2001 by a tribunal appointed by the military government.
In 2009, Gilani was instrumental in the reinstatement of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Supreme Court Chief Justice, following his suspension by the previous (military) government. Chaudhry has become a powerful and influential figure in the country’s politics, having used the courts to strike down several amendments and decisions by military and civilian governments. Chaudhry is no friend to Zardari, and has repeatedly pressured the Government to reopen corruption charges on the President.
Nor is the approaching corruption scandal the only worry on the embattled Zardari’s mind. Late last year, following the unilateral US strike which killed Osama bin Laden, an anonymous memo surfaced in the media in which Zardari warned of an impending military coup in Pakistan and asked for US military assistance in suppressing it, in return for which he offered to put the heads of the military on trial and a free hand for US attacks on Pakistani soil.
The government has refused all involvement in the memo, but Pakistan’s military was not amused, and warned of ‚grievous consequences for the Government. The military in Pakistan has staged three coups in the past.
The military then moved the courts for an inquiry into the incident, which was disputed by the government, which in turn offered to hold a parliamentary inquiry into the matter. The Courts deemed this insufficient.
Zardari now finds himself increasingly isolated and friendless. Public disenchantment with his administration is at a peak and if general elections were to be called early, a victory for his party is unlikely.
Analysts say that it is possible that the army and the judiciary have had enough of the current administration, and that the army has allowed the judiciary to do its dirty work.
Another coup is unlikely, given the obstacles faced by the Pakistan military currently and the tremendous unpopularity of the last military government. However, at the moment, political challengers for Zardari’s mantle are few and far between.
Nawaz Sharif, former Prime Minister, benefits from a Constitutional Amendment removing the two term limit on heads of state, allowing him to run for a third term, but faces a possible challenge regarding his ability to hold office following a corruption conviction. Former cricketer and philanthropist Imran Khan enjoys growing popularity with the urban middle class, and is on cordial terms with the army leadership, but faces a lack of confidence in the rest of the country.
Whatever happens, the next year will be crucial for Pakistan. It is entering a period of political games and challenges unparalleled even in its own eventful history. In one way these developments are hopeful, in that they may lead to an examination of Pakistan’s political structures and cause the country to emerge into a deeper exploration of what democracy means.
On the other hand, this is a tragic diversion for a country that is plagued by economic ills, growing extremism, and a battle for minds, hearts and land with terrorist organisations in many parts of the country.