Pakistan’s Slow-Mo Constitutional Crisis: Gilani and Zardari vs. the Supreme Court

The prime minister and the Supreme Court move one step closer to a possible constitutional meltdown. Ron Moreau on why neither side is about to back down.

The Pakistan Supreme Court judge wasted no time. Within minutes of Yousaf Raza Gilani’s arrival in the packed courtroom, the judge began reading out the two-page indictment formally charging the embattled prime minister with contempt of court. The offense? For the past two years, Gilani has refused to comply with a court order directing him to reopen corruption charges against his political boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. "Do you plead guilty?" the justice asked. "No," Gilani replied. With that, the hearing adjourned until Feb. 16, and the judge gave Gilani’s defense team until the end of the month to prepare its case.

The prime minister may well be found guilty of contempt, but don’t hold your breath. And meanwhile a pall of political uncertainty will continue to hang over this nuclear-armed country, amid grinding poverty, mounting economic woes, and armed Islamic insurgency. “There was this false impression that the guillotine was going to fall this morning, and that there would be a vacancy in the prime minister’s house” says Ayaz Amir, an opposition member of Parliament. “This is serious. But whatever happens, it won’t happen soon.” If convicted, Gilani could theoretically be sentenced to six months in prison and be forced from office—after further lengthy legal proceedings, of course.

Many Pakistanis think the Supreme Court is too aggressive and out to get the president—and the prime minister, too, if he doesn’t get out of the way. “The accusation is that the Supreme Court is biased,” says Amir. “It is. No question about it.” The relationship between Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and Zardari has been long and troubled. The president came to office in September 2008 promising to reinstate the chief justice, who was summarily sacked in 2007 by then-president Pervez Musharraf. In fact, one of Gilani’s first official acts as Zardari’s prime minister was to order Chaudhry’s release from house arrest. Nevertheless, it took massive pro-Chaudhry street demonstrations to force the president’s hand and restore the chief justice to office almost a full year later.

Practically as soon as he returned to the bench, Chaudhry moved to rescind a Musharraf edict granting Zardari (and hundreds of other politicians) amnesty from corruption charges. The decree has been part of a deal that allowed Zardari and his popular wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, to return from exile in 2007. After Bhutto was assassinated by a suicide bomber late that year, Zardari took over as leader of her Pakistan People’s Party, and in the 2008 elections he was swept into office on a wave of public sympathy.

Nevertheless, Chaudhry’s court ruled the Musharraf edict unconstitutional and ordered Gilani to reopen the corruption cases—particularly one in Switzerland. In 2003 a Swiss court found Bhutto and Zardari guilty of laundering millions of dollars in alleged kickbacks from Swiss companies (they both denied the charge). The Swiss set the case aside in 2008 at the request of Zardari’s government. But the newly reinstated Chaudhry’s Supreme Court ordered Gilani to write a letter to Swiss authorities asking them to revive the case against Zardari. The prime minister refused, arguing that as Pakistan’s president, Zardari enjoys full constitutional immunity from any changes anywhere. “He has got immunity … even all over the world,” Gilani said in a recent television interview.

The Pakistani justices believe they have been more than patient and are simply enforcing the rule of law. “The court is being cautious and wants to give the impression that it will not give a judgment in haste,” says political and military analyst retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. “They are giving him some time to breathe and reflect.” The leniency may be wasted. “He is not writing a letter,” says Amir. “You at least have to give him full marks for resilience and tenacity.”

Zardari and Gilani seem unperturbed by the likelihood that the prime minister will eventually be found guilty of contempt. “It is quite clear that [the court] will probably pass sentence against him,” says Masood. Even then, Gilani could limp along, surviving on drawn-out legal and political processes. After a conviction, lawyers say it could take as much as three months of wrangling for him to be disqualified as a member of Parliament, a necessary step before declaring him ineligible to head the government. And if he’s finally forced to step down, the Parliament’s PPP-controlled ruling coalition will simply elect Zardari’s next choice for prime minister, who presumably would continue stonewalling the court. In fact, the PPP regards Gilani's eventual ouster as a political plus. The party has already come up with catchy slogans exalting Gilani as a political martyr—a loyalist who is ready to give up power rather than betray his president.

Zardari and the PPP seem confident that they will actually increase their hold on power in the next few weeks. The party seems poised to gain a majority in next month’s Senate elections, which would enable the PPP and its allies to block all legislation that doesn’t suit them for the next three years. When the government presents the new national budget in June, that will give the party a free hand to include vote-getting populist spending measures ahead of the general elections to be held later this year or early next. “After they do that, they are ready for anything that occurs,” says Amir.

Still, all these legal and political battles are a distraction from doing what the government was elected to do: boost economic growth and job creation, put an end to the country’s crippling energy crisis and rampant official corruption, and improve public security. “Everything is in suspense,” says Masood. “There is so much uncertainty within the country, which is not good, because governance is already so poor.” As long as survival remains the government’s priority, however, governance will be no more than an afterthought.