Pakistan: Prime Minister Gilani’s ouster – what next?

My recent analysis for Express Tribune published yesterday:

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s inevitable ouster has created another storm in Pakistani politics reminding us of the endemic political instability that has plagued the country since its inception. The judicial verdict, which renders Gilani as disqualified since April 2012 may lead to further legal crises. The Supreme Court had its intentions quite clear since January when it rebuked the PM for not implementing its orders. The elected government continued to defy court orders and made political capital out of the judgments, invoking its troubled past with the judiciary.

The recent allegations of corruption levelled by infamous business tycoon Malik Riaz on the chief justice’s son added another twist to the executive-judiciary struggle. Many observers viewed the hand of the executive behind this move. Several detractors of President Zardari also hinted at the latter’s role in this saga. The Supreme Court swiftly reacted and unified in the face of what was interpreted as an ‘attack’ on its independence. The decision to disqualify Gilani therefore comes as a sequel and cannot be isolated from the recent events. Concurrently, the court has also been active on the missing persons case, which implicates powerful members of the security establishment.

Since 2007, there has been a redistribution of power within Pakistan’s formal state structure. The judiciary has emerged as a relatively independent player and has distanced itself from its historical ally, the military. This new reality and power shift was a messy one as it entailed conflict with the civilian and military arms of the executive at various points in recent years. Yesterday’s decision comes as a final expression of this intra-state struggle. Whether this struggle will involve a showdown with the security agencies remains to be seen. However, given the court’s resolve to assert its authority, this eventuality cannot be ruled out.

The PPP and its allies will soon agree on Gilani’s replacement. Whilst the ruling party was prepared for this decision, it seems that the road ahead is going to be a rocky one leading to the announcement of elections prior to the scheduled date of March 2013. It might be difficult for the PPP to garner support the way Gilani did in March 2008. In case there is a logjam, the government would have to announce fresh elections.

Under the 19th Amendment, the PPP and the opposition party, PML-N will have to agree on the composition of the caretaker administration. There is no consensus on the appointment of an Election Commissioner between the two parties. Currently, a serving judge of Supreme Court is working as the Election Commissioner, therefore making the court an ascendant power player in the weeks to come.

As before, the ball is in the court of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif whose sagacity, as a democratic leader, will once again be tested. It remains to be seen if he throws his weight behind civilian politics or chooses to side with the powerful Supreme Court, which, despite its best intentions, is an unelected institution.

The capital has also been abuzz with the usual rumours, in particular the preference for a technocratic government, which may work beyond the 90-day limit and ‘fix’ the economy. This is not a new idea and has been tried in Pakistan and Bangladesh. In both cases, it failed to replace legitimate politics by mainstream parties. Observers are quick to point out that, if political instability continues, and the PPP is unable to manage its allies, the unelected institutions might make extraordinary interventions. Needless to say, the democratic system, despite its failings, remains the best mode of governance for a federal and conflict-ridden Pakistan. Political parties have to remain alert to all possibilities. If the turmoil in the country, partly engineered, due to long hours of load-shedding and mediatisation of this discontent continues, we can expect anything. Pakistan’s history bears testimony to the fact that anything is possible and forces of authoritarianism are always waiting for the right moment.

Published In The Express Tribune, June 20th, 2012.

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