In purely constitutional terms, the battle between Pakistan's Supreme Court and its government has thrown up no clear winners or losers. That may be just as well. The court's sentence to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani for contempt — imprisonment until the rising of the bench — and the reasons it gave for this token punishment were an admission of the limitations of the judiciary's powers. Contrary to popular expectation that Mr. Gilani would be sent to jail for the maximum imprisonment of six months, the court considered the consequences of the conviction — a likely disqualification from the National Assembly and consequently from the office of the Prime Minister — serious enough by themselves. Again, instead of pronouncing him disqualified from parliament, the court has left this decision to the National Assembly, where it is the Speaker who will adjudicate. Pakistan has been spared the political confusion of a jailed Prime Minister, and the possible institutional clash that might have ensued. But there is no getting away from the conviction itself. The court had directed the government more than two years ago to write to the Swiss authorities asking for a reopening of money laundering cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. It was the failure to do this that led to the court slapping contempt charges. Unimpressed by Mr. Gilani's plea that he went by the advice of his government on presidential immunity, it asserted itself by convicting him.
In the political arena, the Pakistan People's Party has tried to make capital of the whole episode, projecting it as a continuation of its struggle with the establishment since the day the Supreme Court sent its founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to the gallows. Indeed, there was something more than inelegant in the way the judiciary singled out Mr. Zardari's cases for follow-up when it struck down in 2009 a Musharraf-era ordinance closing thousands of corruption cases. Mr. Gilani has flaunted his conviction as a badge of honour, spurning opposition calls for his resignation on the ground that he still enjoys the confidence of the National Assembly. However, the problem with victimology is that while it helps to motivate the faithful, it does not win over anyone else. Mr. Zardari is perceived as corrupt by many Pakistanis; and the PPP is seen as going to any extent to protect him, even if it means defying the law. Already in the home stretch of its five-year term, the party may believe this is a battle it can fight better on the electoral turf. But there is more than one rival contender, and a less cynical use of democratic processes would not hurt a party that can rightfully take credit for putting Pakistan back on the democratic path.