Saturday, March 10, 2012

Pakistan’s deepening political crisis

On 13 February, the Supreme Court charged Pakistan’s prime minster, Yousuf Raza Gilani, with contempt for his refusal to reopen an old corruption case against Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari.

Gilani faces six months in prison if convicted — although this may not necessarily disqualify him from the prime ministership.

Gilani pleaded not guilty to the charge, meaning a stream of evidence will now be presented to the court over the coming weeks. It is uncertain what will happen to the government if he is charged. According to the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, one lawyer reportedly said: ‘Going through the language of the charge framed against the prime minister, I believe [he] cannot be disqualified … it appears as if the court has charged the prime minister with civil contempt instead of judicial or criminal contempt’. But technical rulings aside, this may not be enough to absolve the prime minister in the eyes of others: cricketer-turned-political leader Imran Khan called for Gilani to step down from the prime ministership because he no longer has the ‘moral’ ground to retain the leadership.

Gilani believes otherwise, and argues that President Zardari has immunity from corruption charges under the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), passed under the leadership of President Musharraf in 2007. The NRO grants amnesty to politicians and bureaucrats who were accused of corruption, embezzlement, money laundering, murder and terrorism between 1 January 1986 and 12 October 1999, the intervening period of civilian rule between martial governments. Zardari spent several years in jail before becoming president, and is widely known as ‘Mr Ten Per Cent’ for the corrupt practices he engaged in while serving as a minister in the government of Benazir Bhutto, who was his wife.

The uncertainty surrounding the case and Gilani’s future creates two major problems for the government and the people of Pakistan. First, it further diminishes the public’s confidence in the government. The people no longer feel they can trust the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government, perceiving it as both corrupt and incompetent. While this court case is unlikely to be the tipping point for Pakistan to erupt into its own Arab Spring moment, it further cements the failures of democracy in the minds of the people.

Second, in addition to deepening the political crisis already facing the country, the court case has added yet another distraction for the government. The PPP cannot afford to lose time in dealing with political scandals when a sluggish economy, social malaise and numerous foreign policy issues should be its primary focus. At the top of the agenda for the government must be the country’s mounting energy crisis, which is threatening to cripple Pakistani industry and create massive civil unrest.

For months, thousands of Pakistanis have taken to the streets to protest gas and electricity shortages over the cold winter. Just one example of the abysmal state of the energy sector comes from Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan’s north. The regional government announced in late February that there would be a ‘load management plan’ under which electricity to the regional capital would remain suspended for three days. In a place where winter temperatures average –10 degrees Celsius, the plan seems mad. But this is the reality of Pakistan’s energy sector in 2012.

Gilani and his government cannot afford to be distracted by the political turmoil created by the contempt case — and it seems unlikely that this government, which has already weathered numerous political scandals, will loosen its grip on power. But it is unfortunate for the people of Pakistan that they have to endure such a continuous stream of events, each of which distracts the government from actually governing. This is the reality they face, however, and Pakistan will undoubtedly just keep muddling its way through.

Alicia Mollaun is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Economics and Government, the Australian National University, and is based in Islamabad. East Asia Forum

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