Pakistan's power play intensifies

After sacking one PM, the crusading head of the judiciary sets his sights on the new premier. Andrew Buncombe and Omar Waraich reports

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The Independent Online

Political turmoil is nothing new to the people of Pakistan. But last week they experienced something unprecedented.

A sitting prime minister was disqualified by the Supreme Court, the man proposed to replace him was forced to stand aside after a court issued a warrant for his arrest, and a controversial alternative candidate was eventually elected for what most observers say will be a curtailed term.

The disqualification of Yousaf Raza Gilani by the Supreme Court and his replacement by the former power minister Raja Pervez Ashraf took Pakistan into further choppy waters at a time when it is facing challenges on multiple fronts. The economy is struggling, its relationship with the US is fraught and there is a crippling power shortage that has sparked angry riots in many cities.

"We want peaceful ties with our neighbours Afghanistan, Iran and India. We desire good relations in our region on the basis of the philosophy of peaceful co-existence," Mr Ashraf declared on Friday evening in his first address in the parliament. "As a responsible nation, Pakistan will continue to play its role as an enabler and facilitator of peace and stability in the region and the world."

But the former power minister's term as premier is unlikely to be peaceful. The judiciary, headed by the assertive Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, will most likely confront Mr Ashraf, as it did Mr Gilani, demanding that he write to the authorities in Switzerland and ask them to reopen an old corruption inquiry against President Asif Ali Zardari.

The man nicknamed "Rental Raja" by Pakistan's media also faces allegations that he received kickbacks during his term as power and water minister and he has already been questioned by anti-corruption investigators. Aware that elections must be held before next March, and that forces beyond its control could ensure they take place sooner, Mr Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is readying itself for more turbulence.

The weeks ahead will be crucial for the party and for Mr Zardari, who appears to be looking to a second term as president. In both national and provincial contests, the party will face a stiff challenge from Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N and from the former cricketer Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, both of which have been benefiting from Mr Zardari's deep unpopularity.

"They need to get every vote in the national and provincial assemblies to secure his future. He is looking for a second term," said Farzana Shaikh, an expert on the country at London's Chatham House. "There is a great deal at stake."

Analysts say the drama last week underscores a recurring fault line within Pakistan and the constant challenging for power between various institutions – elected politicians, the military and the judiciary. The issue of an arrest warrant for Mr Zardari's initial choice to replace Mr Gilani, the textiles minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin, on the day he filed his nomination papers, suggests the military, which heads the anti-narcotics force that is investigating him, is also in the current fray.

"The clashes highlight the fact that organisations are fighting for more powers for themselves and that Pakistan is still in the process of evolving institutions. This is quite usual in periods of transition," said Ejaz Haider, a leading commentator. "The judiciary has its own place within the constitution which cannot be denied it on the argument that it is not elected and therefore must kowtow to an elected government. The legal and political sovereigns are out of joint, and that is the underlying reason for the current tussle."

The clash between the PPP and Mr Chaudhry's Supreme Court dates back to 2009, when Mr Zardari refused to reinstate the deposed chief justice in the face of a lawyer-led movement for judicial independence backed by the opposition and a cross-section of the media. Mr Zardari was forced to capitulate after a march threatened his government's stability. At the time, the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, also made a discreet intervention, in an effort to avert total chaos.

Mr Zardari's reluctance was ascribed to a fear that Mr Chaudhry would revive old the corruption charges against him – a fear that has now been realised. The PPP says the charges against Mr Zardari are politically motivated.

Once back in the Chief Justice's chair, Mr Chaudhry's popularity continued to rise. In a country where the political class is widely seen as inept, distant and venal, there are few places for Pakistanis to rest their hopes. The army is still tainted by decades of military dictatorship that failed to live up to breathlessly touted promises of a different, more efficient form of government.

Mr Chaudhry has been seen as a crusader against corruption and abuse. Never before in Pakistan's history have as many senior government officials been summoned to court to justify their actions. Even the powerful military intelligence agencies have been grilled over their notorious human rights abuses, in particular the "disappearance" of political dissidents in the restive south-western province of Baluchistan.

But despite welcome efforts to shake off the court's pliant past, now there is growing criticism that it is overstepping its mandate, assuming a political role, and, at times, positioning itself as an alternative government. Some say its decision to sack Mr Gilani was more about politics than the law.

As the country struggles to see a civilian elected government complete a full, five-year term, Pakistan's stunted democracy has suffered another setback. The voters have never had the opportunity to rid themselves of an unpopular prime minister, and have been denied that opportunity once again.

Traditionally, it was the army that often made the move to rid itself of supposedly troublesome politicians. Three military coups since the 1950s have each led to around a decade of generals in power. More often, civilian leaders were shunted aside by subtler means, such as a palace coup, in which the army's proxy president would dismiss a government on dubious grounds.

Now, as then, it is unaccountable institutions that have arrogated to themselves the right to represent the will of the people of Pakistan over their elected representatives.

This time, there's also a dark element of intrigue. Mr Gilani's sacking comes as a scandal unfolds involving the Chief Justice's son, a government-connected billionaire and other shady characters. The billionaire claims that Arsalan Chaudhry extorted £2m in cash and expensive holidays from him. Supporters of the Chief Justice cry foul, but don't deny his son's involvement. Instead, they say that the son was being suborned as part of an elaborate attempt to lure the Chief Justice into a trap that would make his downfall inevitable.

Either way, questions abound about the Chief Justice's involvement, knowledge or complicity. Mr Chaudhry hasn't proceeded in an entirely dispassionate manner. He decided to summon both the billionaire, Malik Riaz Hussain, and his own son to the Supreme Court, without any wariness of an obvious conflict of interest. The verdict against Mr Gilani, which came just days later, is being seen, against this backdrop, as carrying an element of revenge.

The prospect now is of an intensifying clash that could further unsettle Pakistan's weak and faltering democracy. Some conspiracy theorists whisper that the powerful army is looking on with gratification, plotting to gently bring down the government and install a caretaker set-up of assorted technocrats for the next few years.

But Pakistan's politicians are unlikely to accept their fate so easily. Mr Zardari has won a reputation for cunning and brinkmanship. He is not going to let his power quietly drain away. And the opposition, led by the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Mr Khan, the former cricketer, are in no mood to see their political gains slip into the hands of a non-political coterie.

Whatever the outcome, Pakistan will certainly not be dull for the next few months.

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