ISLAMABAD — Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was dismissed from office Tuesday by the courts, a victim of an intensifying conflict between the government and the judiciary that has plunged the country into fresh political turmoil.
The Supreme Court ruled that Gilani was disqualified because of his failure to open a long-dormant corruption case against his boss, the Pakistani president, prompting speculation about whether the coalition government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party can limp on and who would replace Gilani.
Late Tuesday, the frontrunner to replace him appeared to be Makhood Shahabuddin, a former health minister, with news reports saying that he had been chosen at an emergency meeting of the ruling coalition, although the final decision rests with President Asif Ali Zardari. The other main contender was Ahmed Mukhtar, a former defense minister.
In any case, the show of power by the court – some described it as a “judicial coup” – could open the way for the powerful military to try to regain power. In the immediate term, the confrontation distracts Pakistan’s attention from negotiating a deal with the United States over access to supply routes for the U.S.-led coalition in neighboring Afghanistan, as well as managing an escalating series of domestic crises including terrorism and a collapsing economy.
If the ruling party bows to the court judgment, the government is likely to remain in power for now, albeit under a new prime minister. Gilani had served for four years, after democracy replaced Pakistan’s military dictatorship in 2008, but the period has been marked by a tussle among the executive, judiciary and military over the levers of power – leaving the business of governing the country in near-paralysis. While the legal dispute played out in Islamabad, the capital, riots have broken out in the eastern province of Punjab in protest of crippling electricity shortages that have made the sizzling summer heat even harder to bear.
Pakistan has been ruled for more than half its history by the armed forces, and many believe the military leadership has actively used the courts to weaken the civilian government.
“Sadly, the democratic process may prove short-lived,” Asma Jahangir, a leading lawyer, wrote Tuesday in the daily newspaper Dawn. “The (military) establishment has played its cards well. It has masterfully used the hands of civilian institutions to cut each other down to size.”
The court added to the uncertainty by ruling that Gilani had actually stopped being prime minister back on April 26, when the court had found him guilty of contempt for refusing to pursue the corruption case against President Zardari. A conviction bars someone from being a member of Parliament and therefore serving as prime minister. The opposition claimed the ruling meant that all government decisions since April 26 were therefore invalid, including the passing of the annual budget.
Under Pakistan’s constitution, the prime minister runs the government, while the president serves, in theory, as a mostly symbolic head of state. Gilani had repeatedly defied court orders to write to authorities in Switzerland to ask them to reopen old corruption cases against his boss, Zardari, who heads the Pakistan Peoples Party and controls the government as a result of his party position.
“Under our government system, if the prime minister is gone, the Cabinet is gone,” Jahangir Badar, a senior party leader, told a news conference. “We will meet our coalition partners, then the party will meet tomorrow, then we will announce what we will do.”
Gilani and other party members have insisted that only Parliament can disqualify the prime minister, but it appeared that the PPP would have to bow to the judiciary in this case. Observers said that a new prime minister would face the same pressure from the judiciary over the Swiss cases.
“Whoever becomes prime minister will be told by the court to write the letter. So it has to be someone who will resist writing the letter,” said Chaudhry Faisal Hussain, a lawyer. “It’s a question of the survival of the president.”
The Pakistan Peoples Party has claimed that the president has constitutional immunity from prosecution both in Pakistan and abroad, so the letter also would be unconstitutional.
Many believe that the only way out of the political and constitutional impasse is through early elections, which seem increasingly likely to be called before the next scheduled vote in February 2013, perhaps as soon as this fall.
In Punjab, where many areas are without electricity for 12-18 hours a day, the violent protests have attacked the houses of several parliamentarians from the Pakistan Peoples Party, accusing the party of indifference while the energy crisis mounts. PPP leaders suspect that the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, is inciting the violence in Punjab, home to over half the country’s 180 million people. Demonstrators also have burned and smashed up private property, cars, police stations and government offices.
The legal intrigue in Islamabad also has ensnared the judiciary itself, with the son of the chief justice alleged to have taken bribes from a wealthy businessman in return for promises to fix cases pending against him. Supporters of the chief justice suspect that the government or the military were behind the attempt to tarnish its image.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.