By Najam Sethi
THE CONFLICT between the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the government of President Asif Zardari is gathering momentum. Skirmishes have broken out on several fronts. And a make or break showdown is round the corner, unless the SC steps back — which may be desirable — or Mr Zardari throws in the towel — which is unlikely.
Maulvi Iqbal Haider, a maverick lawyer whose reputation as a puppeton- strings precedes him, has filed a petition with the Chief Election Commissioner ( CEC) asking him to reexamine President Asif Zardari’s qualifications to be a member of parliament in light of the National Reconciliation Ordinance ( NRO) judgment. The petition asks the CEC to investigate whether Mr Zardari was ever convicted under any circumstances at home or abroad or fulfils the constitutional requirement of being of sound mind or a good Muslim. Should Mr Zardari be guilty of either sin, he can be disqualified from being a member of parliament and his nomination as president of Pakistan can be held to be null and void.
The facts are slightly murky. The National Accountability Bureau ( NAB), which filed the cases of corruption against Mr Zardari during the regimes of Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf, says he was never convicted, in absentia or otherwise. The President’s spokesman insists likewise. But a section of the media and the bar reports otherwise. So we shall have to wait for the CEC to determine the facts of a case — avoiding 5 per cent import duty on an imported BMW car — that goes back to 2005. If the fact is that he was never convicted, he will be off the hook on this front.
BUT THE question of being a good Muslim will have to be settled, one way or another, before the SC. There is a precedent.
In 1985 a petitioner challenged the Islamic credentials of a competitor in an election. The CEC held in his favour. But the judges of the Supreme Court threw out the petition with the contempt it deserved, arguing that it was well nigh impossible to determine who was a good Muslim or not. Therefore, given the charged political environment, this SC would have to risk its credibility enormously if it went against the grain of an earlier SC decision on such a contentious issue.
Of course, if it turns out that Mr Zardari was once convicted in absentia, however absurd or trumped- up the charges, then we shall have a problem on our hands. Under the NRO judgment, he can be technically knocked out. But once again the SC’s credibility will be seriously eroded in light of earlier SC judgments that insist on the unfairness and unjustness of any trial and conviction in absentia. Either way, notwithstanding the anti- Zardari mood of the establishment, opposition and a section of the media, the SC will be widely perceived, especially in the provinces, to be on a witch- hunt against one popular party and its leadership.
So nothing good can come of any judicial attempt to throw out Mr Zardari and risk plunging the country into a political quagmire.
Unfortunately, however, this line of reasoning hasn’t sunk into the establishment so far. Indeed, the courts seem bent on giving the PPP government and its ministers a hard time. But the crunch will come when the SC directly targets the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, for not carrying out its order to direct the Swiss government to reopen the money laundering case against Mr Zardari that was closed on the request of the Zardari government after the NRO was executed by the Musharraf regime in early 2008. In this context, an attempt was made on January 28 to whip up a section of the anti- PPP lawyers against the government for dragging its feet on implementing this SC order. But it was thwarted by a bigger section of the lawyers which feels that this accountability is pretty one sided and the SC is overstepping its domain and creating unacceptable political ripples that could undermine the political system.
Understandably, the army’s leadership is coming in for a bit of flak. Until now, Mr Zardari and a section of the independent media had pointed fingers in the direction of GHQ, alleging that the khakis had destabilised the government on the issue of the Kerry- Lugar Bill some months ago and might be winking at other anti- Zardari elements to go for his jugular. Now Maulana Fazal ur Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema Islam has openly accused GHQ of political meddling and warned that the democratic system is in danger. This is no mean allegation. Maulana Fazal is normally a very careful and circumspect man who never strays too far from GHQ. Something must be terribly amiss for him to be thundering against the “agencies”. The fact is that the popular mood in the country is changing. Few people like Mr Zardari. But more and more are becoming convinced that he is being singled out for some sinister motives by the Punjabi establishment and that getting rid of him will not necessarily usher in the long- awaited salvation promised by his opponents.
I NDEED, the increasing fear is that by targeting him to the exclusion of the other political, military, media and khaki rascals, the establishment may end up alienating the smaller provinces and open up a Pandora’s Box of national contradictions that invite hostile foreign powers to intervene and dismember Pakistan.
Something like this has finally got into the mind of Nawaz Sharif who is no longer sure that he will be a beneficiary of the successful outcome of the Get- Zardari campaign. A split seems to have emerged in the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz, with one section urging Mr Sharif to give one final push to Mr Zardari and go for a midterm election, and another that is cautioning restraint lest the powerful army and the resurgent judges and media make common cause against all politicians and devise a new caretaker system antithetical to them all.
In the next few weeks, media pressure is likely to increase on the army to show its hand. Does it stand with the government, as ordered by the constitution to do so under all circumstances since the organs of the state are supposed to obey the legitimately elected government and parliament of the day, or with the SC that is increasingly perceived to be “ going after Zardari” with unconcealed vengeance?
The writer is the editor of The Friday Times (Lahore)
Source: Mail today, New Delhi