The people of Pakistan are helplessly watching their government and the judiciary slug it out in a drama that would have been farcical had it not been so dangerous.
On day one Pakistan's supreme court disqualified Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. The Pakistan Peoples Party went into a huddle and emerged, after some debate, with Textiles Minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin as its choice for prime minister. Almost immediately a lower court issued an arrest warrant for him over a drugs scandal. A day later the PPP named Raja Pervaiz Ashraf as replacement. It remains to be seen whether he survives, as in an earlier stint as the power and water minister Ashraf had been dogged by allegations of corruption, and is certainly not seen as a particularly honest man in his country.
His future, thus, is uncertain with even the Pakistan media questioning Ashraf's stability in office. The loud talk after the supreme court has subsided, as a rather chastened PPP is now clearly worried. After the initial ruling Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, in a rather defiant mood, had declared that the era of "packing parliament through the back door" is over and "no back doors or side doors will be allowed to be reopened for sending the elected parliamentarians home." However, he had to eat his words and send Makhdoom home, and perhaps even to jail if the courts have their way.
The supreme court is clear that it wants Pakistan's prime minister, who so it might be, to write to the Swiss authorities for details of President Zardari's accounts. And it will no doubt raise the issue again as soon as a prime minister is in place. So any prime minister of the PPP will again have only one of two options: either defy the courts directives and be disqualified. Or to crack down on the judiciary, arrest all independent judges, and establish the power of the executive and the legislature over the judiciary through the use of brutal force.
Short of this, the cases against President Zardari stand, and the supreme court, clearly in no mood to reconcile with the government, will continue pursuing the cases of corruption against him. The chaos over the disqualification is thus not temporary, and the clouds are not going to pass. The government, led by a president widely acknowledged to be corrupt from the taxi driver up to legislators in Pakistan, is not in a position to resist a firm judiciary without the seams cracking open. PPP legislators dubbing the court verdict as a "conspiracy" to prevent the Zardari government from completing its five years in office in February 2013 are actually admitting the writing on the wall: early elections are around the corner.
Zardari's brave talk is not convincing. And while the worry in battle-torn Pakistan is real about the outcome of this clash among the executive, legislature and the judiciary, there is not much left in the system to check it. The only way out of the mess, and that too not as a certain option, are early polls. Imran Khan has already called for elections. The others, more crafty in their politics, are seeking new alignments.
The former prime minister and head of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Nawaz Sharif, has become active in trying to make friends of old enemies, including some who he had sworn never to speak to as long as he lived. Zardari has already spoken to Muttahida Quami Movement Altaf Hussain and made a bid to persuade Jamiat Ulema e Islam-Fazlur chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman to come back into the PPP-led coalition. Rehman has reportedly refused.
The point is that Pakistan seems to be hurtling towards an election at breakneck speed. There is a growing feeling within that country that these might provide a fresh start by bringing a new, and perhaps less corrupt and more responsive, government to power. It is clear that the Pakistan Army under General Pervez Kayani is not going to seek power, preferring to let the so-called institutions of a fragile democracy battle it out in the field. Imran Khan has perhaps the least to lose and the most to gain, as from a tally of zero he hopes to rise to the position of at least a 'kingmaker" if not the king himself.
It is true, though, that his popularity has grown tremendously, and the young people seem to now look upon him as their preferred option. To what extent this translates into votes has to be seen and Pakistanis in any drawing room in Islamabad, for instance, remain divided between a "he will sweep" position to a "he will definitely get a few seats". His relations with the military seem to be good, and he is not likely to face any real opposition from this all-important constituency in Pakistan.
PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif seems to be coming out of his slumber to make a bid to power. He has waited for long, and is now said to have approached several political parties including individuals in PML-Quaid-e-Azam if Pakistani media reports are to be believed. The former prime minister is believed to be in touch with the MQM and Awami National Party as well as smaller groups in the National Assembly like JUI-F and PPP-Sherpao. No one has rushed out in his favour but the process, as politicians like to say, is on.
The manipulative skills of Zardari that Pakistanis recognise as "highly successful" in keeping him and the PPP in power have alienated many in government, and even in his party. Even at this moment, while the men around him are paying the price, Zardari himself has managed to stay out of the legal loop, at least until a prime minister writes to the Swiss, and the Swiss agree to provide the necessary information to the Pakistan courts. Seems very much like the Bofors or black money trail that Indian governments have pursued over decades with little to no results!
Democracy in Pakistan has been taking knocks, over and over again. The desire of the people has been countered several times by the Army through direct rule; and now by this unseemly row between the pillars of democracy over a president who has refused to step down and allow the law to take its course. It is interesting to note that there is little to no questioning in the Pakistan media about Zardari and what he should do to restore the rule of law and with it levels of democracy in Pakistan.
Instead, even leading luminaries have got involved in the judiciary versus executive debate, with the latter now threatening to take the matter to the legislature as it has in the recent past. Articles about the role of the judiciary etc have appeared in the media, but while it is important to have a debate as we have here in India over the role of the judiciary or judicial activism as many call it, it is also important to understand the reasons for the row, and what can be done for smoother functioning of these important institutions.
President Zardari seems to be the main obstacle in the way of smooth executive-judiciary relations. He is certainly part of the problem, and not the solution that will emerge on its own if he removes himself from the seat of power. But then this is highly unlikely, and being possessed of manipulative skills he is still moving the pawns in a bid to out-manipulate the judiciary in this game of nerves and power.