Shadow boxing

While the Army was once the game-changer, today that dubious distinction is held by the judiciary, taking the lead in destroying a government

When former Paki-stan Prime Minis-ter Benazir Bhutto, who would have turned 59 on Thursday (June 21), wanted to share what she was privy to, she paid scant respect to the Makhdooms or anyone whose name had a string of prefixes or an overlong honorific.

One of Pakistan’s most charismatic political leaders, Bhutto would summarily dismiss from her presence men who went on to become the Prime Minister, foreign minister and even the interior minister in her husband Asif Ali Zardari’s Cabinet.
Her ideological moorings were always with the educated middle class, the poor and the downtrodden, drawn to her by her uncanny ability to connect, to work a crowd.
As the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government headed by President Zardari — a government, and party, indisputably now of the elite — replaces the Prime Minister who, at his bidding defied the highest court and was summarily disqualified, with another and yet another, Pakistan is gripped in crisis anew.
How long before the new Prime Minister(s) go down the same route? How far will the Supreme Court go in punishing a Prime Minister, when it is the President, accused of corruption, who is the actual target? While the immunity that the presidential office gives a sitting President makes it almost impossible to prosecute Mr Zardari as long as he is President, how will the judiciary, which has “played executive, judiciary and legislature”, set this in motion? A judiciary that is no longer playing second fiddle to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The clamour for fresh elections to be overseen, not by Mr Zardari but by an independent caretaker government, is growing ever shriller. But the President will fight it tooth and nail. Already, in choosing the path of least resistance, however, he treads with caution.
If “polls” do come to shove, much rests on whether son and heir and party president Bilawal Bhutto has understood that it’s time to reclaim the party of his forbears from the clutches of the Zardari rich men’s club and chart an independent course.
That the confrontation with the Chief Justice has brewed for some time is no secret. And clearly, reports that the trigger to annul the National Reconciliation Ordinance which allowed the Bhutto-Zardari couple as well as another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, to return home from military-imposed exile, stemmed from Mr Zardari’s unwillingness in 2009 to extend the Chief Justice’s term, is deeply troubling. As is the imputation that the sudden disqualification of Mr Gilani only came into force because the PPP dirty tricks brigade had systematically thrown mud on Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry’s son Arsalan, and by that token the Chief Justice himself, in a bid to undermine the judiciary.
In fact, the Supreme Court ruling two months ago seemed to sort of settle the matter by giving outgoing Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani a 30-second (!!) punishment, while the Speaker of the House’s rejection of the Supreme Court’s ruling was met with silence. In not appealing against the judgment, its clear Mr Zardari never intended reconciliation.
His strategy: stretch out the theatrics for as long as possible, play both martyr and victim and milk the sympathy of the people for yet another legitimate PPP government using the martyrdom of the Bhuttos and being forced out of office.
But here’s the rub. The Chief Justice-led judicial protests, which tasted political success in engineering the exit of Pervez Musharraf, and set it on a path of confrontation with the Zardari leadership has surprisingly widespread support. There are many in the Opposition, the establishment and the PPP who are exulting in what they see as the end of a PPP government that has moved away from the ideological moorings that once made the PPP so feared by the military-ISI. They want re-engagement with Washington. They want to redial 2007. They want the Taliban put back in the box.
“This is not our PPP, it’s the PPP masquerading as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and mohtarma’s (Benazir) party,” said a supporter at Bibi’s birthday celebrations in Lahore. “The hope that she held out for a better Pakistan when she returned on October 18, four and a half years ago, has dissipated,” he said.
And this is the tragedy that stalks this deeply divided nation. This elected civilian government will join the ranks of all the others that have not completed their term of office. And the clear political overtones of the battle being waged by the Supreme Court, against this government — imperfect as it maybe, though it’s unclear at who’s behest — puts a huge question mark over Pakistan’s troubled path to democracy amid a systematic subversion of its institutions.
While the Army was once the game-changer, sending the infamous Rawalpindi Xth Corps wheeling into the capital, to lay siege to the Prime Minister’s house, today that dubious distinction is held by the judiciary. In the past, hand in glove with the military and the ISI; today, in Pakistan’s Byzantine political labyrinth, taking the lead in destroying a civilian government from within, rather than wait for the ballot box to bring in change.
Although given the confessions of Gen. Asad Durrani, ISI chief during the time of former President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, even the ballot can be arranged.
That Mr Zardari has survived this long must be put down to the wily President’s vastly superior survival skills. Being forced to call elections early will be resisted, given the slew of corruption scandals, misgovernance, inability to deliver even basic necessities like food and power and the distance the PPP has travelled from its core constituency.
The judiciary’s aim is to ensure this Parliament no longer stands in the way of prosecuting Mr Zardari. This is why the man he picks as his Prime Minister, is key. The constitutional powers invested in the Prime Minister are the only armour the President has left. Mr Zardari, however, is working on an additional tack: appoint one tainted man after another — Makhdoom Shahabuddin is accused in an ephedrine scandal, and Raja Pervez Ashraf is allegedly involved in power plant kickbacks — and wait for the sympathy wave to build up as each appointee falls afoul of the law.
With the Supreme Court in the driving seat, however, Mr Zardari may soon be a President without a government. Pakistan, back to shadow boxing as usual.

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