Now that an amnesty providing immunity to thousands has expired, Pakistan’s supreme court has the chance to showcase its merits
It may be more a matter of wits than weapons, but the battle for control of Pakistan‘s executive branch of government is as significant for the country as the war against the Taliban. Resolving this latest crisis, the fiercest tussle over the stewardship of the country since Pervez Musharraf was ousted from the presidency in August 2008, will determine the future of Pakistan’s parliamentary democracy for many years to come.
Although ostensibly centred on current President Asif Ali Zardari’s immunity from a raft of court cases, the dispute has engulfed many of the most senior members of government.
It all boils down to a national reconciliation ordinance drawn up by Musharraf in November 2007 when he was still president. As his popularity and legitimacy plummeted, the Bush administration pushed for a power sharing arrangement between the general and one of his great rivals, the slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto who was living in exile between Dubai and London at the time. But a raft of court cases against Bhutto, her husband Asif Zardari, and many of their cohorts precluded an easy return to Pakistan to contest national elections. The NRO effectively gave them the immunity they desperately need to return to politics.
Following victory in national elections last year, the Pakistan People’s party, under Asif Zardari’s stewardship following Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007, formed a coalition government with a number of other parties and pressed for the NRO to be passed as law. But parliament and the supreme court conspired to scupper those plans, leaving the controversial amnesty to expire last Saturday, 28 November.
As far as we know, 8,041 individuals were given immunity under the NRO. They include Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s influential ambassador to the United States, and Rehman Malik, a key Zardari lieutenant and spearhead of the civilian administration’s push against extremists. Pakistan’s high commissioner to Britain, Wajid Shamsul Hassan, is also on the NRO list. So is the Britain-based head of the Muttahida Quami Movement, Altaf Hussain who, along with two of his deputies, faces more charges than any other individual on the list.
The charges against the thousands on the list, alleging everything from corruption, abuse of authority and even murder, make for harrowing reading. And although the government claims it will not protect anyone from the court’s findings, there can be no doubt that many of the charges are politically motivated. Virtually every prominent politician in Pakistan has faced or is facing a court case lodged by their foes.
But in among the mudslinging and the uncertainty it has created, the move to refer the NRO to the courts is a powerful, if indirect endorsement for the rule of law and parliamentary democracy. The government, faced with a hostile mix of political opponents and opportunists, says it will abide by any court rulings against those on the NRO.
A revitalised supreme court headed by Iftikhar Chaudhry, the fiercely independent chief justice who survived first Musharraf and then Zardari’s attempt to remove him, is expected to rule on the legality of the NRO in the not too distant future. He has already set a supreme court bench to commence hearings against those named in the NRO from Monday 7 December.
What the court eventually determines will also likely determine the fate of the present government.
So long as he remains head of state, President Zardari will retain immunity from any prosecution. Desperate to remain in office, however, he has already ceded control of the country’s nuclear arsenal to the prime minister. It is expected that he will also concede the powers to dismiss the national assembly and appoint military chiefs. That would be a welcome move as the prime minister is more answerable to the parliament than the president.
Current prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has undoubtedly been the biggest winner in this saga. Although installed by Zardari to be a pliant prime minister, he has increasingly drifted away from his orbit. It is well known that he has courted the Sharif brothers, former prime minister Nawaz and Punjab chief minister Shahbaz, who control the largest opposition party and dominate politics in the most populous province of Punjab. If key members of the PPP-led government falls due to the NRO , Gilani, who was a member of Sharif’s party until falling out of favour in the 1990s, could form government with them. To his distinct advantage, Gilani was not on the NRO list because the courts have already cleared him of corruption charges.
The political wrangling certainly reduces Pakistan’s capacity to deal effectively with the three largest crises plaguing the nation: the ongoing war with the Pakistan Taliban, the inability to match energy supplies with demand, and a weak, highly inflationary economy.
With so many Pakistanis sceptical of a democratic process that historically has failed to deliver, however, now is the best opportunity to showcase the merits of Pakistan’s fragile secular institutions.