Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was indicted by the Supreme Court today on the grounds that he had disobeyed its instructions to write to Swiss authorities in order to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. Gilani pleaded not guilty and the hearing has been postponed until February 22. He maintains that Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution while in office, and says that he himself would prefer to be dismissed rather than write to the Swiss authorities. If convicted, Gilani could face five years' disqualification from public office and six months' imprisonment.
Tensions between the Supreme Court and the government have persisted since 2008, when Zardari was reluctant to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry over fears that he would revive old graft cases. Since then, the Court has sought to assert itself as the guarantor of political probity. For example, it imposed a cap on sugar prices during shortages in 2009 and ordered the government to disband party-linked Karachi militias in 2011.
However, recent judicial proceedings against the national coalition are politically more sensitive because the Court is being cheered on by the military, which views Zardari's poor management of the economy as a threat to its budget and financial interests.
The governing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has agreed at all levels to continue to defy the Court, judging that the political fallout from any reopened, overseas graft cases would be intolerable. Gilani has stated that he believes he will automatically cease to hold office if convicted and would not need to resign. This statement plays into several options presently being considered by the PPP.
Zardari may be able to use powers granted to the president under Article 45 of the Constitution to pardon contempt charges and reverse Gilani’s disqualification from office. Alternatively, Zardari could invoke Article 94, which permits the president to ask the prime minister to remain in office until a successor has been selected (something the PPP could delay). However, legal opinion is divided on this option.
Already, the PPP has succeeded in enlisting the heads of its allied parties either to attend the hearings with Gilani or protest outside, and called on its elected officials and party workers to demonstrate outside the Court's premises. In doing so, the PPP hopes to benefit electorally from the legal proceedings, which it views as a step too far by the Court. They will portray Gilani as an elected prime minister persecuted by a judiciary performing the army's bidding.
Were Gilani imprisoned it would permit the PPP to occupy a political high-ground and boost voter confidence, especially in Punjab where its support has been low. For their part, opposition parties would seek to erode the lustre of Gilani's putative political martyrdom by reminding voters that, should he end up in prison, he would be there only to protect Zardari from investigations of graft.
Proceedings against Gilani will likely last until July, and he will probably receive no more than a token sentence of ten days or less. Zardari could follow the example of former President Rafiq Tarar, who in 1997 pardoned then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's contempt charge, thereby permitting Gilani to remain in office. Yet the government is preparing for Gilani's ouster and contemplating an option wherein his successors would continue to defy the Court on the graft issue and be replaced one after another. Although the government's policy agenda will remain stalled, the legal controversy is unlikely to cause significant political instability.
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