ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A simmering crisis between Pakistan’s government and the country’s Supreme Court reached new heights when the court ruled today that Prime Minister Raza Yousuf Gilani is ineligible to continue holding office.
“Yousaf Raza Gilani is disqualified from membership of parliament from April 26, the date of his conviction. He has also ceased to be the prime minister of Pakistan,” said Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
In April, the court convicted Gilani of contempt for refusing to reopen a graft investigation against President Asif Ali Zardari, who as co-chair of the governing Pakistan Peoples Party is also Gilani’s boss.
Reacting to the Supreme Court decision, the speaker of parliament, Fehmida Mirza, ruled that Gilani should not be disqualified, setting the stage for a massive political clash that could stall the government, if not topple it.
“It is very unfortunate. It is a clash of institutions. There are two rulings now, one of the Supreme Court and one from the parliament”, said Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, Gilani’s political advisor.
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He added that Gilani could legally stay on as prime minister until the parliament elects a new one. In the meantime, the Supreme Court judgment “will be put before the parliament for a decision and accordingly a decision will be taken."
But Gilani's Pakistan Peoples Party announced just hours after the court's announcement that it would accept the decision and appoint a new prime minister. The party said it would name a new leader in the next 24 hours.
A potential clash between parliament and the Supreme Court could easily spill over into the streets, said Ahmad Bilal Mehboob, the executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
“This, if carried forward, will probably result in a breakdown of the state machinery. And that’s a very dangerous situation. That is when the Pakistani military in the past has intervened and taken over,” Mehboob said.
A confidante of Zardari, the president, earlier told GlobalPost that the clash between the judiciary and the government dated back to 2008, and was at least in part personal. At the time, the newly-elected Pakistan Peoples Party dragged its feet on reinstating Chief Justice Chaudhry. Gilani finally reinstated Chaudhry in 2009.
In the same year, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that a 2007 political deal exempting more than 8,000 bureaucrats, politicians and political operatives from prosecution was unconstitutional.
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It was a deal between the then President Pervez Musharraf and the self-exiled two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. It ensured that the latter could return to Pakistan without facing corruption charges, which she said were politically motivated.
After its election, Gilani’s administration asked Swiss authorities to withdraw a laundering case against both Zardari and his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, which they did.
In 2003, a Swiss court had found Zardari and his late wife guilty in absentia of laundering millions of dollars in kickbacks from a Swiss company, while the latter was the prime minister of Pakistan. They went into appeal.
This most recent political chaos diverts much-needed attention from the country’s mounting energy problem, which is crippling the economy, analysts said. As the Supreme Court read the verdict, rioters across the country protested power cuts that in some cities last 20 hours a day.
And even if the Pakistan Peoples Party decides to let parliament choose a new prime minister, there is a good chance the standoff starts allover again, said Rashid Rehman, editor of the Daily Times, an English language newspaper in Pakistan.
“Who is to say that the Supreme Court does not put pressure on the new prime minister to do what they want Gilani to do, which is write a letter to the Swiss?” he asked.