A new chapter in political instability

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The former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (right) with his brother Shahbaz Sharif in Lahore. The widespread view is that the disqualification of the Sharifs was not a legal battle.
The former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (right) with his brother Shahbaz Sharif in Lahore. The widespread view is that the disqualification of the Sharifs was not a legal battle.

Nirupama Subramanian

The conflict between the Sharifs and the PPP will be bitterly fought.

Pakistan faces a new chapter in political instability with the Supreme Court disqualification of Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif from holding or contesting for any public office. All indications are that the coming conflict between the Sharifs and the Pakistan People’s Party, particularly its leader Asif Ali Zardari, will be bitterly fought.

For the world, the timing could not have been worse. There is bound to be concern at the impact on the efforts to battle militancy and extremism. Instability and a possible paralysis of governance will only aggravate the situation from Swat to FATA. For New Delhi, concern will centre on the fallout on Pakistan’s efforts to investigate the Mumbai attacks and its tentative steps towards bringing the guilty to book, a task made immediately more challenging by the absence of a political consensus.

Any hope that the PPP-led government may find the political will and courage to start acting on India’s larger demand for “dismantling the infrastructure of terror” on its soil may now have to wait for another day.

President Zardari and the government are likely to be more preoccupied with the political battles ahead. The attempts at “political reconciliation” since the February 18, 2008 elections are now history.

Nawaz Sharif, who holds Mr. Zardari squarely responsible for the disqualification has already indicated that the coming weeks and months could be a throwback to the no-holds barred battles between the PPP and the PML(N) of the 1990s. Those battles always resulted in a premature demise for the government of the day, with either a direct or behind the scenes military intervention towards regime change.

In the strictly legal sense, the Supreme Court ruling cannot be faulted. Nawaz Sharif was convicted by the Musharraf regime in 2000 on charges of attempting to hijack a plane in October 1999.

The plane was bringing Pervez Musharraf, then the army chief, back to Pakistan on the day he ousted the Sharif government. Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab chief minister at the time, was convicted in a separate case on charges of defaulting on a bank loan. Though the sentence was pardoned in return for the Sharifs accepting exile to Saudi Arabia, the convictions remain.

But the widespread view is that the disqualification of the Sharifs was not a legal battle; rather it was a political question in which the courts should have had no say. In the first place, the conviction of Mr. Sharif is itself seen as dodgy, delivered by a Supreme Court in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 coup.

Legal and constitutional experts believe the PPP government could have found a way out for Mr. Sharif had it wanted to. One suggestion was that President Zardari should bring in an ordinance to wipe out the convictions against the Sharifs, similar to the Musharraf-sponsored National Reconciliation Ordinance that erased all corruption charges against him and his late wife Benazir Bhutto.

“There were 101 ways in which to deal with this issue, but only if it was the PPP’s intention to resolve it,” said PML(N) spokesman Ahsan Iqbal, warning that the latest developments were “going just plunge the country into a new cycle of confrontation, which we wanted to avoid.”

In its defence, the PPP has argued the disqualification was purely the court’s decision and any attempt by the government for a pro-Sharifs verdict would have amounted to an interference with the independence of the judiciary.

There are few takers for this line. In the popular perception, the present Supreme Court is anything but “independent”. It is headed by a judge handpicked by former President Musharraf after he sacked chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary and other judges following the emergency of November 3, 2007.

Contrary to expectation, the PPP has gone out of the way to see Mr. Chaudhary does not return to the Supreme Court. Mr. Zardari’s blithe turnaround on two written agreements with the PML(N) for restoring the judges shocked even the most sanguine.

The impression of “malafide” has only deepened with the proclamation of governor’s rule in the Punjab province immediately after the disqualification order. Rather than invite the PML(N) to appoint another chief minister in place of the disqualified Shahbaz Sharif, the PPP-appointed provincial governor, Salman Taseer, lost no time in dismissing the government.

It has invited criticism that the disqualification was a “pre-planned” and “deliberate” move by the PPP, with a view to ousting the PML(N) from Punjab and taking control of the province .

But if this is true, Mr. Zardari may have bitten off more than he can chew. For his “principled politics” — such as the decision to quit the federal cabinet following Mr. Zardari’s turnaround on the judges — Mr. Sharif is arguably Pakistan’s most popular politician. His stature has soared even more after the disqualification.

By contrast, the stock of the PPP and Mr. Zardari, already low for several reasons, has plumbed new depths. The PPP leader is now being accused of completing his predecessor Pervez Musharraf’s unfinished agenda against the Sharifs.

The joke doing the rounds is that the former president must be the happiest man in Pakistan these days, because President Zardari has replaced him as the country’s most hated person.

For the first time, the PPP’s “jiyala” supporters are finding it hard to defend their party. For the first time too, the party’s traditional constituency in the so-called progressive civil society has backed away in horror, saying the Sharifs have been treated “wrongly.”

Political soothsayers now see the all-out war between Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif, a gradual weakening of the PPP government, and in all likelihood, an early demise. Bloodshed within the PPP is not ruled out either. Among Mr. Sharif’s first gambits was to exploit the reported discontent in the PPP by trying to push a wedge between the leader and his party. The PPP was not to be blamed for his disqualification, Mr. Sharif said, it was entirely Mr. Zardari’s responsibility.

The role of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani, who has of late wanted it known that he is not a presidential poodle, is being seen as crucial. Will Mr. Zardari try to make him step off, and how would Mr. Gillani react to such a move?

All eyes are now also on March 12, when the lawyers propose to stage a “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad for the restoration of the judiciary. The lawyers have threatened to stage an indefinite dharna in the capital. Mr. Sharif, who was earlier hesitant about his participation in this, is now preparing to make the Long March his own vehicle of protest against President Zardari. The prospects of a violent confrontation between the protestors and the state are real. As always in situations of political instability, the Pakistan Army is the dark horse.

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