By Rahimullah Yusufzai
With his amnesty against corruption charges set aside and powerful forces impatient with his deeds and misdeeds, Asif Ali Zardari stands on shaky grounds today.
TOUGH TALK: President Zardari's emotional and, in part, reckless speech while observing his wife Benazir Bhutto's second death anniversary in Naudhero December 27 may well upset the presidential apple cart
Pakistan is again facing political instability triggered by a legal battle in the apex court. This could compound the country's problems at a time when it is suffering from economic depression, combating an insurgency in Balochistan and fighting a costly and protracted battle against militants linked to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The federal coalition government, headed by late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), appears to be going on the back foot after initially showing some defiance over the Supreme Court judgement that declared the controversial amnesty law, the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), null and void.
Led by Bhutto's widower and now President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik, the government was earlier showing unhappiness over the court verdict and labelling it as selective. But after getting some saner advice, President Zardari is now saying that the government respected the court's judgement and supported independence of the judiciary.
However, not many Pakistanis believe him considering the fact that he and the PPP government were dragging their feet before being forced to reinstate the Supreme -
Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and 60 other superior courts' judges sacked by former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf after an unprecedented protest movement spearheaded by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, lawyers and the civil society last summer.
Zardari's handpicked Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, has been painstakingly explaining that his government didn't want confrontation with the judiciary or the military and that the Supreme Court's orders would be implemented. He dispelled the impression created earlier by some PPP leaders that the Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani was behind the judgement by the Supreme Court handed down by Justice Chaudhry and 16 other judges on the bench. He also said the government would decide about reopening the Swiss banks' case against President Zardari as directed by the Supreme Court once the detailed judgement of the court was made public.
There are more than $60 million deposits in Swiss banks in the name of Zardari and the late Ms Bhutto. Successive governments in Islamabad have alleged that this amount was collected through kickbacks and commissions paid by a company from Switzerland in return for a lucrative public sector contract in Pakistan. The Musharraf government had withdrawn the corruption case against Benazir Bhutto and her husband following the issuance of the NRO and the Swiss banks accounts were unfrozen. However, the Supreme Court has now directed that this case and all other cases withdrawn under the NRO and offering amnesty to about 8,000 influential people should be reopened.
The Zardari government hasn't taken any steps yet to implement the December 16 Supreme Court verdict. Though certain old cases of corruption have been reopened on the directive of the apex court and some of the accused have appeared in accountability courts after being summoned, other high profile cases haven't been taken up yet. The criminal cases remain unopened and more accountability courts, as directed by the Supreme Court, have not been set up. Two federal ministers including Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Law Minister Babar Awan have appeared in accountability courts in cases of corruption and misrule. More ministers may be summoned by the courts but there is no possibility of summoning Zardari who enjoys presidential immunity.
Despite the Supreme Court's directive, the government hasn't written to the Swiss courts to reopen the cases against President Zardari. This is a contentious issue and on it depend the future relations between the Zardari government and judiciary. A ruling PPP leader Fauzia Wahab wondered how was it possible for the government to ask the Swiss courts to reopen cases against the president of Pakistan. She argued that the ruling PPP cannot possibly instruct the Swiss courts to take action against Zardari, who refused to give up the office of co-chairperson of the PPP even after his election as the country's president.
Faced with this dilemma, the PPP-headed federal government has been using different options to overcome the crisis. It is making efforts to secure the passage of a resolution from the National Assembly, Senate and the four provincial assemblies reposing confidence in President Zardari. The trust vote would show that the president still enjoys the confidence of majority of lawmakers and that the coalition government is strong enough to foil any conspiracy against it. However, the opposition PML-N of Nawaz Sharif has decided to oppose such a resolution and other political parties including Zardari's allies would demand a price in return for backing the trust vote. The recent victory of PPP candidates in by-elections of two assembly seats, one in Balochistan and the other in Gilgit-Baltistan, is also being portrayed as a vote of trust in the ruling party and its leadership. However, both seats were won in the past by the PPP and it was able to retain them amid allegations of rigging and the use of government resources made by the opposition political parties.
Efforts are also being made to seek the help of Nawaz Sharif, who twice served as prime minister in the past and is the most popular politician in Pakistan, according to recent public opinion polls. Zardari has held fruitless meetings with him in the past and is keen to meet him again. Prime Minister Gilani too went to Lahore to meet Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, younger brother of Nawaz Sharif. Though Nawaz Sharif is promising he will not rock the boat and refuse any move to topple Zardari and his government, he also wants constitutional amendments that would take away presidential powers and give them to the prime minister and parliament. Sharif is also demanding implementation of the Supreme Court verdict on the NRO, an issue that is currently the major bone of contention in Pakistani politics.
Sensing danger, Zardari and Gilani have moved to stop their party leaders from issuing statements critical of the Supreme Court and the Pakistan Army. This was considered necessary to avoid confrontation with the military, which is Pakistan's most powerful institution, and the resurgent judiciary that is not afraid to take bold decisions and challenge the other pillars of the state. Some of the PPP leaders had earlier given critical statements against the judiciary and Raja Riaz, who is a senior PPP minister in Punjab, went to the extent of saying that no army general can blackmail the PPP as it was the party of the masses. Other PPP leaders demanded reopening of cases against Nawaz Sharif and his supporters.
The Supreme Court, despite showing signs of judicial activism, too is moving cautiously to avoid confrontation with the government. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry observed during hearing of a case on December 24 that the Supreme Court judges had their limitations and that they didn't want to be blamed for interfering in the affairs of the executive arm of the government.
Source: The Asian Affairs, Pakistan