Pakistan: Will the government-judiciary confrontation cease?
After a week of political turmoil within the ruling PPP in Pakistan, Raja Pervez Ashraf, who won 211 votes in the 342-seat National Assembly, was duly elected as prime minister on June 22 and assumed office on June 23.
He was the water and power minister in the previous government, but was unpopular because he failed to reduce chronic power shortages in the country. "It is extraordinary that we have this former power minister becoming prime minister when millions of people are enraged by precisely that (power) problem," said Mehreen Zahra-Malik, an assistant editor of The News.
"The candidature of Raja Pervez Ashraf for PM shows the utter contempt Asif Zardari has for the people of Pakistan," tweeted Imran Khan, the former cricketer and rising opposition politician.
In his first speech to Parliament, the new prime minister called on Pakistani Taliban militants to lay down their arms. "The irresponsible behaviour of religious extremists has ruined Islam and Pakistan. I, as prime minister of Pakistan, appeal to them to lay down arms and join the mainstream of life." And he said his government would look to rebuild its relationship with key ally, and aid donor, the US.
Raza Rumi, the director of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute, said Ashraf was a "cynical choice" for prime minister. "Whoever takes over as prime minister will be in for a very short time. Obviously the Pakistan People's Party will not choose its best for this stint." he reportedly added.
On June 19, the Pakistani Supreme Court dismissed Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. The Court order read: "Gilani has become disqualified from being member of the parliament. He has ceased to be the prime minister of Pakistan with effect from April 26."The Supreme Court delivered the judgment and order to a petition by senior opposition politicians, Imran Khan and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif for dismissal of the prime minister for conviction on contempt of court.
On April 26, Gilani was convicted on contempt of court for refusing to ask Switzerland to reopen multi-million dollar graft cases against Zardari. He was given only a token sentence and spared a jail term. However, Speaker Dr. Fehmida Mirza (a PPP member) decided not to refer Gilani for disqualification.
Under the Pakistan Constitution, anyone convicted of defaming or ridiculing the judiciary is barred from being an MP and the Supreme Court acted to implement the constitutional provision this time.
The cases against Zardari date to the 1990s when he and his late wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, were suspected of using Swiss banks to launder
$ 80 million allegedly paid by companies seeking cargo contracts. Switzerland shelved the cases in 2008 when Zardari became president.
The man responsible for the dismissal of the prime minister is Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, who has been hailed as a democratic hero for standing up to the last military strongman, General Pervez Musharraf, in 2007. Justice Chaudhry is widely popular in Pakistan. He is a particular hero to the middle classes for his willingness to tackle corruption and to take on government and military excesses.
Last December, former prime minister Gilani accused the military of being behind the effort. "I want to make it clear that there are conspiracies going on to pack up the elected government," Gilani said at the time.
Analysts ask whether or not it should be called a conspiracy, but there certainly is a confluence of forces against the prime minister who is too-loyal to President Zardari. This makes it impossible for the government to function normally, with an allegedly corrupt president.
If there's a silver lining, it's that this time democratically elected leaders managed to stay in power for an impressive four years. Gilani is already the longest-serving civilian prime minister in Pakistan's history.
Sources said Zardari had ruled out the option of calling an early general election following Gilani's disqualification. President Zardari first nominated senior leader Makhdoom Shahabuddin for the post of the prime minister but since he faced non-bailable arrest warrant for allegedly importing an illegal drug while he was health minister, his name had to be dropped. Analysts suggested that the arrest warrant had been allegedly engineered by the military because Shahabuddin was not acceptable to them.
Presumably, the government-judiciary confrontation will not ease with the election of a new prime minister, who will be asked by the Supreme Court to pursue the same corruption case against the president, and hold him in contempt as well should he refuse.
Zardari and Gilani may fairly be accused of bungled leadership and inept policy making.
Pakistan can ill afford this political wrangling as the economy falters and terrorist groups gain strength. Public confidence in democratic institutions is getting shaky in the country.
A BBC correspondent says the court ruling comes amid fast shifting alignments between competing state institutions and politicians -- and is likely to further divide an already fractious Pakistani society ahead of elections due by early next year. Much of what has happened is uncharted territory -- there are few precedents to suggest what happens next
In Pakistan, analysts say three power centres have evolved: the presidency supported by its party in the parliament (not supported by the highest judiciary), the General Head Quarters of Army (GHQ), and the coterie of the extremist religious fundamentalists.
These factors indicate that Pakistan is going through a troubled period and that Imran Khan along with the Pakistani youth support early election to resolve the political conundrum. Observers suggest new elections may be the only way to break the existing the deadlock between the highest judiciary and the government.
In recent months, the US Foreign Policy magazine has ranked Pakistan 13 in the failed states list, with Afghanistan at number 6, followed by Haiti, Yemen, Iraq and Central African Republic. Somalia, Congo, Sudan, Chad and Zimbabwe topped the list of failed states. The magazine has been publishing the list of failed states since 2005.