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Aiming for the head

By gunning for Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, the army is actually trying to target president Asif Ali Zardari. Ayesha Siddiqa writes.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2012 21:50 IST
Ayesha Siddiqa
Ayesha Siddiqa
Hindustan Times

The hearing of the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan on February 13 left most people frustrated. The friends of democracy grew anxious to see that the highest court was in no mood to spare the government. The enemies, on the other hand, were equally unhappy because the SC did not seem to expedite the process of chopping off the government's head. In fact, Imran Khan had immediately called a press conference decrying the government as having lost the moral authority to rule.

But both sides understand that the highest prize is not the prime minister but the president. The contempt proceedings against Yousaf Raza Gilani is due to his refusal to write a letter to the Swiss courts asking them to re-initiate an inquiry into president Asif Zardari's ill-gotten wealth that he seems to have stashed away in the banks in Switzerland. The case to retrieve the money lying in Switzerland was withdrawn by the previous government of Pervez Musharraf as part of the National Reconciliation Ordinance signed between the former military dictator and Benazir Bhutto.

Public opinion is clearly divided between those who feel Zardari and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) are being victimised and others that are of the view that nailing the president will usher in an era of better governance. However, the fact of the matter is that the SC's activism is not likely to morph the system of governance and bring in a corruption- free society due to its inquisition against an individual. The highest court seems to have a tilt towards one party at the cost of the other. Recently, the court ordered the government body investigating corruption to return Rs 115 million of the Sharif brothers. Therefore, the legal battle appears to many as an extension of the political battle between Zardari's PPP that his deceased wife Benazir Bhutto used to head and the country's all powerful security establishment that many believe is taking cover behind judicial activism. The perception is that the court is being used to thrash the political government as it has fallen from grace in the eyes of the military.

The contempt proceedings were preceded by another case popularly referred to as the memogate scandal in which an American national of Pakistani origin had accused the president and the country's envoy to the US Hussain Haqqani of provoking Washington into taking action against the Pakistan military. The case is under trial before the Supreme Court but seems to have lost its lustre due to the American national Mansoor Ijaz's subsequent refusal to appear before the court. Recently, the court allowed Ijaz to record his statement via videolink which is the first time that such a thing will happen. The highest judicial leniency in certain cases tends to stick out especially when it does not show a similar resolve to nail the accused in other cases. The legal cases against some of the militant outfits are a case in point.

The PPP government also seems to have opted for a political methodology to fight the legal battle. For instance, instead of selecting a capable legal mind to fight the contempt case, the party chose a less capable lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, who is better known for his political showmanship particularly during the lawyers' movement of 2007/2008. Ahsan's selection, many political observers believe, was to appease the judges, especially the chief justice with whom Ahsan has a good relationship. However, the chief justice, while pampering his friend in the court, was in no mood to ignore the fact that Ahsan was unable to present a convincing legal argument.

At this juncture, there appears to be little possibility of a rapprochement between the Supreme Court and the government. In other words, Gilani's departure is inevitable as he has refused to write a letter to the Swiss court on the grounds that the president has immunity. Some sources are also of the view that the axe will fall on Gilani also because the army chief and his chief spook are utterly unhappy with the prime minister who had spoken against them in Parliament. Although Gilani later retracted his statement, the fact is that his comment regarding the army being ‘a State within a State' will always remain part of parliamentary record. This is no mean feat. But the larger issue is of pushing out Zardari who in the past four years has given a tough fight to the country's political army. Gilani's removal will open up the floodgates for more protest by Zardari's opponents to impeach him.

His removal, as some will argue, may not just be to eradicate corruption in the country but to ensure that Asif Zardari is not there to influence the choice of the next army chief even remotely when Gen Ashfaq Kayani retires in 2013. The country's powerful military establishment is not willing to take any risk by keeping a man who seems to have shaken the GHQ's relationship with the US. Getting rid of him and his cabal may be critical at a time when the endgame is being decided in Afghanistan.

The Supreme Court will decide Gilani's fate in the end of February which soothsayers say will seal the fate of his cabinet and democracy in general.

Ayesha Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based writer and is the author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy. The views expressed by the author are personal.
Right Vision Media Syndicate, Pakistan

First Published: Feb 21, 2012 21:36 IST