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Gilani's ouster a 'judicial coup'? Pak media wonders

June 20, 2012 21:09 IST

While Pakistan's right opposition parties as well as the mainstream Urdu media have welcomed the supreme court's verdict disqualifying Yousuf Raza Gilani as the prime minister, the country's liberal English newspapers have expressed serious reservations over the apex court's decision, describing it a judicial coup and stating that the judges' decision to play the role of judiciary, legislature and executive in Gilani's case, may find some takers. Amir Mir reports.

The apex court verdict has put a big question mark on parliament, being mother of all the state institutions. Although Gilani's disqualification, which has thrown the country into fresh turmoil, is unlikely to topple the fragile Pakistan Peoples' Party-led coalition government, the fact remains that it has left it weakened and without a cabinet.

President Asif Zardari's PPP has got enough support in parliament to elect a replacement for Gilani, but not without giving further concessions to its greedy coalition partners.

Already, there are reports that a late night meeting of the ruling coalition has agreed to nominate Makhdoom Shahabuddin, the textile minister in federal cabinet, as a consensus candidate for the premiership.

The supreme court verdict against Gilani came following a long-running confrontation between the superior judiciary and the civilian government, hardly a week after Arsalan Iftikhar Chaudhry, son of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was accused of blackmailing a property tycoon of the country (Malik Riaz Hussain) to extract over Rs 350 million, with a promise to ensure favourable verdicts by his father in several pending cases.

Justice Chaudhry became a household name in Pakistan and gained international recognition in 2007 after being sent home by General Pervez Musharraf who had filed a presidential reference against him on corruption charges.

Since his restoration by the PPP government in 2009, the CJ has taken on the civilian government over corruption charges, amid allegations that he has a soft corner for the right-wing Pakistan Muslim-Nawaz, led by former Prime Mian Nawaz Sharif.

While Pakistan's right-wing opposition parties as well as the mainstream Urdu media have described the apex court's decision against Gilani as a landmark verdict, the country's leading English newspaper Dawn has stated in its editorial note on June 20 that in disqualifying a sitting, democratically elected prime minister, the supreme court has taken an extraordinary and unfortunate step.

"This whole story could have played out very differently, in ways much less disruptive to the nascent democracy this country is trying to build, if the SC had steered clear of a course of action that has now brought the judiciary, parliament and the executive in direct confrontation with each other. At a number of junctures the court could have avoided pursuing the contempt of court case as doggedly as it did," the Dawn editorial said.

"Legally there might have been a case against the prime minister, but it was best for the judiciary not to have waded so deep into such obviously political waters. At least the court should not have taken on the role of directly disqualifying an elected prime minister, assuming the role of the election commission," it said.

By doing so, the apex court has both disrupted an existing democratic set-up and set a worrying precedent for the future," the Dawn editorial added

English newspaper Daily Times has stated in its June 20 editorial titled 'Virtual judicial coup' that the supreme court's verdict, overruling the Speaker of the National Assembly's, has set an unprecedented example, one that will reverberate in our jurisprudence for a long time to come.

"The intriguing question of course is whether the new PM will suffer the same pressure from the SC to write the letter to the Swiss authorities regarding President Zardari that the court was insisting on Gilani writing, and refusal to comply with which had attracted the contempt conviction for the former PM," it said.

"In that case, the looming confrontation between state institutions, which began as a confrontation between the judiciary and the executive, could expand to now a confrontation between the judiciary and parliament as well…. The impression has been unmistakable that the supreme court has tilted more against the incumbent PPP than in any other direction, even resorting to picking and choosing which cases to hear on a priority or fast track basis," it said.

"This has invited criticism of the judiciary for alleged bias. True or not, such criticism may well find a fresh lease of life after the apex court, in an unprecedented verdict, has deposed a sitting prime minister", the Daily Times editorial added.

In its June 20 editorial titled 'A judicial coup', another English daily The Express Tribune has stated that support for the apex court's decision may not be unanimous mainly because of recent developments, especially where the CJ was dragged into his son's matter and how it chose to itself remove it from the allegations citing that Malik Riaz had himself admitted that he had never received any favours from the court.

"The procedure to remove a prime minister from office is clear: he can be voted out by parliament or the speaker of the National Assembly can send a reference to the Election Commission. So the view, that with this verdict, the apex court has played the role of judiciary, legislature and executive, may find some takers. Also, one must wonder why didn't the seven-member bench that ruled in the contempt case in April not make matters clear, and that if the intention was to leave the matter to parliament then why wasn't the speaker's ruling left unscrutinised," it said.

"The passage of two months since that verdict and Tuesday's decision may well give ammunition to some people who may claim that the court is perhaps trying to deflect attention from Arsalan's case", The Express Tribune editorial added.

On the other hand, the PPP's decision to accept the SC's verdict came as a great surprise for many who were expecting a tit-for-tat reply from the other side given its track record vis-à-vis the judiciary.

Analysts are trying to find out the reason behind PPP's sudden change of mind, which, until recently, seemed adamant to confront the Supreme Court, come what may. The National Assembly's resolution which was passed a couple of days ago supporting Speaker's ruling on the issue of Gilani's disqualification was also being seen in this perspective.

Gilani's repeated statements that only the Speaker of the National Assembly had the powers to disqualify a prime minister were also indicative of PPP's defiant mood towards the judiciary. There was also a lot of talk about the supremacy of the parliament over other state institutions.

It was also being said by PPP lawyers that parliament had the power to undo any decision of the court through an act of the Assembly or by making an amendment in the constitution. This led many to believe that government could go to any extent to confront the judiciary on the issue of PM's disqualification.

However, this did not happen on Tuesday when the government accepted the decision and decided to bring a new prime minister in place of Gilani. Some analysts think that PPP has, by accepting the judgment, in fact, tried to beat a retreat to keep hold of the reins of power that was likely to be threatened by a possible public backlash, spearheaded by a new lawyers' movement which would have been launched had the PPP chosen to defy the court orders.

Sources in the PPP however, believe that the government chose to accept the verdict, though with strong reservations, to save the democratic system as the government saw a greater likelihood of intervention by the undemocratic forces which could exploit the confrontation between the judiciary and the government and present it as an excuse before the nation to de-rail the system.

"It was under these fears that government opted to bring a new prime minister to ensure continuation of the democratic process," they added.

With Gilani standing disqualified even as a member of the National Assembly, the lower house is expected to meet soon this week to elect another member as prime minister by the votes of the majority of the 342-seat house.
Amir Mir in Islamabad