Zardari may weather NRO crisis, but political instability continues

Despite persistent speculation of an imminent downfall, President Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan People’s Party government are trying to politically wear down the storm from the Supreme Court’s verdict on the infamous National Reconciliation Ordinance and may yet manage to ride it out.

Mr. Zardari has made it clear that just the moral pressure of the December 16 verdict, which struck down the Musharraf-era NRO and ordered the reopening of thousands of corruption cases including those against him, cannot force him to step down from office. As for prosecution, he has made it known that the constitution insulates him from the verdict with the immunity it gives to his office.

In recent weeks, he has undertaken extensive tours of the Sindh and Punjab provinces, interacting with party workers, lashing out his opponents in speeches and generally trying to dispel the criticism that he had hidden himself in his “bunker” in the presidential palace.

His political position has been bolstered by the support he has received from Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani.

Zardari opponents who had pinned their hopes on a Gilani-led rebellion within the PPP are slowly realising that the Prime Minister is not prepared to play such a role. In fact, the political uncertainty seems to have only nudged the two together and the tensions between them of a few months ago are no longer that apparent.

Mr. Gilani has come out strongly in support of the PPP leader. Speaking in the National Assembly last week, he made it clear that the government would not reopen any case against Mr. Zardari as long as the Constitution provided him protection from prosecution, and in thinly veiled words, warned the judiciary of the limits to its domain.

“The government is ready for reopening of Swiss cases but the president enjoys immunity granted by the Parliament. It is only Parliament that can withdraw this immunity, and if this is done, I am ready to take action. Nobody else can rewrite the Constitution as this is the sovereign right of Parliament,” Mr. Gilani told the parliament.

Although the Supreme Court judgment did not mention Mr. Zardari by name, it made explicit mention of cases in the Swiss courts in which he was involved before they were terminated under the NRO, ordering the government to get the Swiss authorities to reopen these cases.

The detailed judgment, released in January, says Pakistan could learn from the experience of the Philippines and Nigeria in the matter of retrieving the ill-gotten wealth of rulers from foreign shores.

As the judgment made no reference to presidential immunity, this was seen as an opening for legal challenges to Article 248, the constitutional clause that provides him protection from prosecution.

Mr. Gilani challenged the judiciary to interpret the immunity clause, thus throwing the ball back in the Supreme Court.

If the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (N), and some political commentators are to be believed, the situation is now ripe for a clash between the executive and the judiciary, which in turn could pose a threat to Pakistan’s two-year-old democracy.

A “clash of institutions” is also seen in a tussle over judicial appointments after Mr. Zardari turned down Mr. Chaudhary’s recommendations for elevation of some judges to the apex court.

But there is a growing sentiment that the judiciary could be overplaying its hand. If anything, the controversy over the appointments, in which both case law and precedent seem to be on Mr. Zardari’s side, has taken a bit of the shine off the judiciary.

Even prominent lawyers who backed the chief justice’s struggle against his removal by the previous ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, and fought for his reappointment, are questioning Mr. Chaudhary’s motives in the controversy over the appointments.

The NRO judgement too has its critics. The eminent human rights lawyer, Asma Jehangir, has questioned the sagacity and motives of the judges in invoking in the verdict constitutional clauses introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq, never used, about the Islamic morality of holders of public office.

In a sign that the judges sense a weak wicket and could be backing off, Chief Justice Chaudhary has declared that the judiciary did not want confrontation with the executive. During a hearing on a matter to do with promotions of civil servants, the chief justice made the pointed remark that the judiciary was there to protect parliament and the democratic system.

But how far the judiciary is prepared to go will become clearer in the coming days when it will be called to decide on whether Mr. Zardari is a good Muslim — something it has already held to be undeterminable in a previous judgment —and on the nature and scope of his immunity. It must also decide what to do with a review petition filed by the government on the NRO verdict.

Also this week, the chief election commissioner will take up a petition asking if Mr. Zardari was ever convicted in any case at home or abroad. There is some confusion about this, and if he was, it could raise questions about his candidature in the 2008 presidential elections, now that the NRO has been pronounced as non est, or “never having existed.”

While there is no let-up from the anti-Zardari camp, a big political advantage he enjoys at the moment is PML(N) leader Nawaz Sharif’s apparent reluctance, despite the high-decibel grandstanding by some members of his party, to use the NRO issue for an all-out battle against Mr. Zardari.

Statements from him suggest that having suffered at the hands of a military usurper, he would do nothing to destabilise the existing set-up, as it could only benefit non-democratic forces, and hurt his own long-term interests. Mr Sharif mainly wants the PPP leader to give up certain powers that he inherited from the Musharraf presidency, and the lifting of the two-term limit for Prime Ministers, something of direct importance to him. There are indications that Mr. Zardari may be prepared to arrive at some compromise on this, even if he does it just to continue in office.

Much will also depend on how the Pakistan Army chooses to play its cards. Some Zardari opponents are asking it to play a role by pressuring the government to implement the NRO verdict against Mr. Zardari. Much as it loathes the PPP leader, the Army is still retrieving its image from the legacy of disrepute and unpopularity of the Musharraf years, and may not want to take political centre-stage any time soon. It is also preoccupied with operations in the north-west frontier region and tribal areas, and in fending off American pressures to carry out more such operations.

But an important date lies ahead — the expiry of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s term as Army chief in November this year. The government has to soon start applying its mind to this issue. As of now, the power to appoint a successor rests with President Zardari. It is not clear if General Kayani wants an extension, or not. Even if Mr. Zardari succeeds in weathering the present crisis, it is this that may turn out to his real minefield.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2020 8:34:36 AM |

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