It's Deja Vu As Pakistan's Political Crisis Deepens

Jul 23, 2012
Originally published on July 23, 2012 12:19 pm

An ongoing political crisis has left Pakistan's government paralyzed and near collapse, as the country's Supreme Court attempts to revive corruption charges against the president in an apparent effort to force his resignation.

Accusations of corruption have always clouded the reputation of President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Some time ago, the government of Switzerland opened an investigation into Zardari's financial dealings, but the case was closed with no action taken.

But Pakistan's Supreme Court has Zardari in its sights. This spring, the court instructed then-Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to write a letter to the authorities in Switzerland, requesting the corruption case be revived.

Gilani, who owed his position to Zardari, refused. In response, the Supreme Court in June found the prime minister in contempt of court and forced his removal.

New Prime Minister Under Pressure

But the turmoil didn't end with Gilani's ouster. A few weeks ago, the process started all over again. This time, the Supreme Court directed the new prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, to request, in writing, that Swiss authorities reopen the case against Zardari.

The court has given Ashraf until July 25 to comply. If he fails, the court has pledged to take action against him.

The ongoing struggle has opened up deep fissures in Pakistan's political class. While many Pakistanis maintain profound respect for the Supreme Court and its justices, political analyst Ayesha Siddiqa says there are serious doubts about the action it has taken.

"The Supreme Court of Pakistan is judicial activism gone completely out of control," Siddiqa says.

Even some who believe President Zardari is guilty of corruption have trouble backing the court.

"I'd like to force the president to resign, frankly," says retired Pakistani Army Brig. Shaukat Qadir. "He's a disgrace to me. But I don't think this is the way to do it."

President Fires Back

Two weeks ago, President Zardari made his next move. He rammed a contempt-of-court bill through both houses of Pakistan's Parliament, where his Pakistan People's Party enjoys majority control.

While most likely unconstitutional, the Contempt of Court Act is designed to protect Zardari and other senior officials from the actions of the Supreme Court by exempting them from contempt of court proceedings.

Now, the nation is holding its breath to see what will happen when the deadline for Ashraf to submit the letter to Switzerland expires this week, says Tariq Mehmood, a lawyer practicing before the Supreme Court.

"One thing is very clear. They expressly replied that they will not write a letter," Mehmood says. "But I think it will not be so easy for the Supreme Court to send the second prime minister home."

Doing so would only paralyze the government further — and convince more people that civilians are not capable of governing Pakistan.

Rumors have begun flying that the military may be tempted to seize power once again, as it has done several times since Pakistan gained its independence from Britain in 1947.

Eyes On The Court — And The Military

Some Pakistanis are concerned about the military stepping in, but others, like Muhammad Ziauddin, the executive editor of the Express Tribune newspaper, are not.

"No I'm not worried," Ziauddin says. "The Supreme Court has declared on a number of occasions that they don't want to see any extra-constitutional solution to the crisis."

But that wouldn't preclude the military leadership from exercising even more influence from "behind the curtain," as they say here.

Among the solutions that may be under consideration is the creation of a caretaker government, and possible early parliamentary elections before the regularly scheduled election next March.

Whatever form it takes, pressure to solve the political crisis is growing. After all, Pakistan is facing serious problems — constant power outages, persistent terrorist attacks in the tribal areas near Afghanistan, and violent insurgent movements spreading into the provinces of Punjab and Baluchistan.

Finding solutions to these problems is nearly impossible while the key players in the government are at each other's throats.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In Pakistan, the government is paralyzed and near collapse. Its supreme court is trying to revive corruption charges against the president in what appears to be an effort to force his resignation. In the process, one prime minister was compelled to quit. Another prime minister is clinging to office by his fingertips.

Pakistan's army remains on the sidelines watching, for the moment. NPR's Mike Shuster tells us more from Islamabad.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: The charge of corruption has always clouded the reputation of Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Some time ago, the government of Switzerland opened an investigation into his financial dealings, but the case was closed with no action taken.

This spring, Pakistan's supreme court with Zardari in its sights instructed the prime minister to write a letter to the authorities in Switzerland, asking to revive the corruption case. The prime minister refused. After all, he owed his job to Zardari, so the supreme court found the PM in contempt of court and forced his removal.

Then, a few weeks ago, the process started all over again, this time focused on the new prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf. The Geo TV website reported the news.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The supreme court has directed Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf to write the letter to Swiss authorities to reopen graft cases against President Zardari. The apex court has set a deadline of July 25th for the PM to submit the compliance report. According to the supreme court, if the PM fails to write the letter, then any action can be taken against him, according to the constitution.

SHUSTER: This struggle has opened up deep fissures in Pakistan's political class. While many here maintain profound respect for the supreme court and its justices, there are serious doubts about the action it has taken, says political analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.

AYESHA SIDDIQA: The supreme court of Pakistan, it's judicial activism gone completely out of control.

SHUSTER: Even some who believe President Zardari is guilty of corruption, such as retired brigadier, Shaukat Qadir, have trouble backing the court.

SHAUKAT QADIR: I mean, I'd like to force the president to resign, frankly. He's a disgrace to me, but I don't think this is the way to do it.

SHUSTER: Then, two weeks ago, President Zardari made his next move. He rammed a contempt of court bill through both houses of Pakistan's parliament, where his Pakistan People's Party enjoys majority control. It is most likely unconstitutional, but it's designed to protect him and other senior officials from the actions of the supreme court.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: President Asif Ali Zardari has signed the contempt of court bill 2012, turning it into law. The bill will provide immunity from contempt proceedings to high office holders. Meanwhile, lawyers in several cities across the country staged a protest against the new contempt of court law.

SHUSTER: So now, the nation is holding its breath to see what will happen this week when the deadline expires, says Tariq Mehmood, a lawyer practicing before the supreme court.

TARIQ MEHMOOD: One thing is very clear. They expressed replied that they would not write a letter. That's clear. But I think it will not be so easy for the supreme court to send the second prime minister home.

SHUSTER: That would only paralyze the government further and convince more people that civilians are not capable of governing Pakistan. So rumors have been flying that the military may be tempted to seize power once again, as it has done several times since Pakistan gained its independence from Britain in 1947.

There are those who worry about that and those who do not, like Muhammad Ziauddin, the executive editor of the Express Tribune newspaper.

MUHAMMAD ZIAUDDIN: No. I'm not worried. I'm not worried. Supreme court has declared on a number occasions that they don't want to see any extra constitutional solution to the crisis.

SHUSTER: But that would not preclude the military leadership from exercising even more influence from behind the curtain, as they say here. Among the solutions that may be under consideration is the creation of a caretaker government and possible early parliamentary elections before the regularly scheduled election next March. Tariq Mehmood says that's the likely way out of the crisis.

MEHMOOD: The only way out is the election.

SHUSTER: Pressure to solve this crisis is growing. After all, Pakistan is facing serious problems: constant power outages, persistent terrorist attacks in the tribal areas near Afghanistan, and violent insurgent movements spreading into the provinces of Punjab and Baluchistan. Finding solutions to these problems is nearly impossible while the key players in the government are at each others' throats.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Islamabad.

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