The Supreme Court's ambiguous order has heightened tensions between the PPP and the Opposition. Yet there is broad acknowledgment in Pakistan that the judiciary showed its authority without derailing the system.
The day Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani put in his third appearance in the Supreme Court in four months — was one of fast changing narratives. He walked in as an accused, became a prisoner for all of 37 seconds and walked out a free man with the tag of “convict” but still the Prime Minister. For all those — in the media and elsewhere — who had hoped to see him brought out in handcuffs, hauled to Adiala Jail and disqualified from Parliament, this was a big disappointment; one they made no attempt to camouflage.
Till the short order of the seven-judge bench came into circulation a couple of hours later, it had appeared that Mr. Gilani had been let off with a rap on his knuckles. But the reference in it to Article 63(1)(g) of the Constitution — gave his political critics the opportunity they were looking for. In their eyes, Mr. Gilani had, in effect, been disqualified by the Court.
Yet, outside of this circle, there was acknowledgement that the Court had in fact allowed the “broader commitment to the continuity of the democratic project” prevail over “narrow institutional battles.” As the Dawn editorial the following morning noted: “A few decades, or even years, ago when a clash looked inevitable a clash did result. But perhaps it is a sign of the growing maturity of the system that the seemingly inevitable can in fact be averted. Yesterday, by averting a clash the Supreme Court didn't lose; the country won.”
Even the most vocal of critics of the Supreme Court, Asma Jehangir — who earlier this year risked contempt of court proceedings by wondering aloud if “this is the judiciary of the people or judiciary of the establishment” — described the decision as appropriate under the circumstances. “The Supreme Court has shown its authority without derailing the system. In its own way, the Court has tried to bring this issue to a closure.”
Still, the ruling has created more chaos with a combative Pakistan People's Party (PPP) fending off demands for Mr. Gilani's resignation as Prime Minister by the Opposition — primarily the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Both parties have threatened to take the battle to the streets.
The shrill rhetoric and the court-created confusion led The Express Tribune to speak editorially of rumours of a third option: “After the ensuing of a post-trial chaos, the powers that be will put the brakes on the present political order and hand the country over to an interim government of ‘experts' who will undertake to set things right in quick time.”
The Prime Minister said as much in the National Assembly the day after he was convicted: “Those demanding my resignation are hoping it will lead to dissolution of the House. Then they will say the electoral rolls are not ready and call for a technocrat government.” Stating that he had not been convicted of either financial corruption or moral turpitude, he added that he had been sentenced for not writing to the Swiss authorities seeking reopening of graft cases against President Asif Ali Zardari who enjoyed immunity under Article 248 of the Constitution.
In fact, the Prime Minister's refrain in the past few weeks has been that the choice was between a maximum imprisonment of six months for contempt of court or death sentence for subversion of the Constitution under Article 6.
His critics pooh-pooh this argument, maintaining that Mr. Gilani is seeking to usurp the mantle of “champion of democracy” for the PPP to cover up corruption. But the PPP counters this by saying that Article 248 remained in the Constitution with all-party consensus after the 18th Amendment which came into effect in May 2010. By then the National Reconciliation Ordinance — as per which all cases against the President and over 2,000 other politicians, bureaucrats and army officials were dropped — had already been struck down by the Supreme Court.
While the PPP's governance — rather the lack of it — is difficult to defend for its own supporters, there is no denying that the party's detractors have been trying to write the epitaph of the Zardari dispensation from the day it assumed office. And recent events, particularly the Memogate scam, have played into the PPP's persistent fears of being victimised.
Leading the charge against the party's detractors, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said: “The PPP has always been subject to judicial murder including that of our founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto but we have always fought in court; never with the judiciary.” He also flagged the contrast in the way the PPP conducted itself in the face of a contempt charge against its premier and the PML-N's behaviour in a similar situation in 1997. On November 28, 1997, PML-N workers and leaders stormed the Supreme Court building and forced the Chief Justice to adjourn a contempt case against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
With the PML-N deciding to up the ante against Mr. Gilani, the PP too has unsheathed the knives. On Saturday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik accused the Sharif brothers of robbing PKR 6 billion from 31 banks, triggering possibly a prolonged round of mud-slinging that could provide the Deep State the opportunity denied to it since 2008 by the PPP and the PML-N.
The mud-slinging revived memories of the 1990s when similar rivalries between the two allowed the Deep State to play one against the other and prevent democratic traditions from taking root. “If the military and judiciary join forces, exactly such a political and constitutional crisis as the current one might create the perfect pretext for establishing a neutral caretaker government for an extended period of time to clean up the system, knock out the PPP and the PML-N and pave the way for Imran Khan's PTI in due course,” said The Friday Times editorial.
For diehard advocates of democracy — who while championing probity in public life are uneasy with the apparent convergence of the superior judiciary's actions with anti-government sentiments in the establishment and the media — this situation has resulted from the maximal and rigid positions taken by the executive and the judiciary.
In an unusual appeal, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said: “The executive earned no credit by apparently defying the apex court's orders, which must be accepted even when they do not seem to be correct or sound, and only time will tell what cause has been promoted by the judiciary by belabouring the executive, out of the hundreds of issues on which it is liable to be chastised, on the issue of its own contempt.”
Gratified that the Court held its hand while sentencing the Prime Minister, the HRCP stressed the need for all institutions to work not only within their constitutional limits but also adopt policies and postures that strengthen each other. “It is hardly necessary to point out that Pakistan needs both justice and democracy in ample measure and that justice without democracy will be as inadequate a dispensation as democracy without justice.”