Gilani escapes again as Pakistan lurches on to the next crisis
For those looking at Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, as he stood with his head bowed in the country’s Supreme Court for all of 32 seconds on Friday morning, it seemed as if once again here was The Great Houdini of his country’s political scene at work again.
Having faced charges of failing to pursue allegations of corruption against President Asif Ali Zardari, he was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to a farcically short time of detention in the court room.
Throughout the trial Gilani said that he would resign if he was found guilty and this is what the opposition parties expected, but such was the preposterous outcome of the trial that it would have taken a bold politician to have insisted on him standing down. In any case, Gilani simply claimed that because he was elected into office by 180 million people they, and not the seven judges on the bench, should be the final arbiters of his fate.
So, the latest round in the longrunning battle between the government and the judiciary seems to have favoured Gilani and Zardari, while in the background Pakistan’s military leadership will be seething. It is no secret that the generals have been in cahoots with the country’s judiciary over attempts to curb the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and that they have had both leaders in their sights for all of the three years that they have been in office.
The latest stand-off came about as a result of Gilani’s refusal to ask the Swiss government to reopen a corruption case against President Zardari by pleading constitutional immunity against prosecuting a sitting head of state. But behind the formalities lies the residual anger over last December’s “memo-gate” scandal which in itself should have been enough to topple the government. In circumstances which remain unclear, President Zardari was exposed as being behind a request inviting the US to intervene in Pakistani politics to prevent a military takeover.
In the ensuing scandal Gilani fought back, claiming that the army could not be a society within a society and in a moment of high drama the military backed down, but only momentarily. The recent contempt case gave them another bite at the cherry but so protracted were the proceedings and so ludicrous the sentence that an uneasy status quo has returned to the country. Gilani is unlikely to be ousted immediately and therefore Zardari remains protected but the army still remains in the background and the judiciary shows no sign of letting up on their long face-off with the PPP.
That’s why no-one in Islamabad seems to know if last week’s events are part of a continuing crisis or simply business as usual as the politicians, the judges and the generals continue their spat about who really runs the country.
As things stand this weekend, the force is probably still with the government. Gilani can appeal against the sentence, even though in his heart of hearts he knows that it would only be a symbolic gesture and that he is safe in the short term. The generals will continue their brooding and plotting, backing the judges as and when they feel they can put pressure on the politicians. Only Zardari has come out of this latest debacle with nothing as the corruption charges against him have not disappeared and he and his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto, still remain under suspicion on account of bribery and money-laundering charges which first surfaced in the 1990s.
Elections are still a year away and if Gilani refuses to stand down, or if the Speaker does not move to dismiss him (another possibility), Pakistan will lurch on in its own inimitable fashion until the next flashpoint. This will not come immediately but it will come and the most likely agent is opposition leader Nawaz Sharif of the Muslim League who has let it be known that he will demand that Gilani stands down because he is a convinced criminal and no longer possesses the moral authority to remain in power. It seems a long shot and it probably is. As ever, Pakistan is only a small calamity away from a full-blown crisis: so, there’s nothing new there.