By Fahd Husain –
Will the SC hold back? If it doesn’t, what will the PPP do? What’s certain is Pakistan will be trying to save itself — from itself
With the election of a new prime minister, a grave political crisis may have been averted for the time being, but Pakistan’s woes are far from over. If anything, the worst may still lie in the weeks and months ahead.
At stake is the system itself. Institutions of the state, which are meant to uphold the state structure, are heading for a head-on collision unless compromises are made, or at least a saner approach is adopted to avoid a political catastrophe. But sanity tends to diminish as the election season nears and political considerations begin to dominate macro decisions. We may thus be experiencing the wrong crisis at the wrong time.
The Supreme Court holds the key. Having devoured one prime minister, it may still have some appetite left for another. The government, especially President Zardari, is salivating at the opportunity to extract political mileage from the tussle with the apex court. The opposition is smelling blood and the army watching quietly from the sidelines. Tension reigns.
The court cannot stand down from its position. At least, not theoretically. The Swiss letter has to be written. Period. There is no possible way that the court can go back on its own judgment, especially when one prime minister has been sent packing for refusing to comply with court orders.
“By beheading a prime minister – metaphorically speaking – the judges have triggered a political game of brinkmanship in which they are a player, not a referee”
Various petitions have already been filed in the court, asking for the new prime minister to be hauled up in the NRO case. The court will not reinvent the wheel. It will not hear fresh arguments about the legality, or otherwise, of writing the letter. It will not allow the government lawyers to plead afresh on the merits and demerits of the case. It will certainly not permit the government to come up with new excuses to not write the letter.
Doing so would undermine its own position, authority, and credibility. Instead, the court will have a simple poser for the new prime minister: “When will you write the letter?”
If the prime minister says he won’t (which he will), the judges can then haul him up for contempt, and possibly decapitate him with the judicial sword. But will they? On this question hinges the fate of the system. The court is treading on thin ice, not legally, but politically.
Politically? The court is supposed to be above all political considerations, and blind to all political consequences. It is expected to deliver judgments strictly on the basis of the law, regardless of what happens. But in reality, sadly, it is not so. At least not in Pakistan today. Knowingly or otherwise, the court has waded into political waters.
By beheading a prime minister — metaphorically speaking — the judges have triggered a political game of brinkmanship in which they are a player, not a referee. That is a hard fact moulded by a harder perception.
In this shifting sea of politically pregnant perceptions, can the court actually lunge for another prime ministerial jugular without unleashing the law of unintended consequences?
The government has clearly not been sitting idle. It has war-gamed all possible scenarios. Is it in command of the situation? No. But is it prepared to deal with all eventualities? Yes. Most of them are not pretty.
If the judges send Raja Pervaiz Ashraf home for the same reasons as his predecessor, the government could either swallow the bitter pill and re-elect a third prime minister, or it could go into defiance mode.
If it takes the blow and does not retaliate, that would mean Scenario 1 is in play. The logic would be to play the martyr again with an eye on the party base. In other words, rack up the sympathy points, bad-mouth the judiciary without actually declaring war, and argue that for the sake of the system, the government is ready to sacrifice even more loyalists.
The calculation is that such an approach would diminish the standing of the court while consolidating PPP’s position as a mature party. As one legal eagle said: “Every time the court convicts a person for contempt, its own authority goes down a notch.”
If the court gets rid of the second prime minister, it would need to be ready to axe a third, fourth, and perhaps fifth as well. As outlandish as this may seem, that is the scenario that builds up if you stretch the situation into the future.
The second option with the government is far more dangerous. If it decides to go down the defiance path, the country may hurtle towards a constitutional deadlock. The system will go into a lockdown and the business of the state will grind to a halt. The spotlight will then move to the army. We will then tumble back into the unstable 90s, where the military high command played the referee’s role as various combatants fought to a political death.
Is there a third option? A middle way perhaps? The elections are due latest in about nine months. To make them a success, much needs to happen. For starters, the government and the opposition need to agree on a Chief Election Commissioner. Then the electoral rolls have to be finalized and consensus has to be evolved for a caretaker set-up.
All this requires a state of relative political peace, and a semblance of stability. Or at the least, an absence of the habitual political convulsions. Painstaking negotiations have to take place between all major stakeholders to level the playing field for an electoral exercise acceptable to all. A calm stretch of a few months is therefore mandatory.
If the court goes into delay mode, things could cool down. The letter stays on the table, not dropped into a mailbox. Hearings are held, dates given and perhaps judgment deferred. Sounds like judicial heresy? Perhaps. But sometimes prudence trumps idealism.
Pakistan is at a tipping point. It is threatening to mature, and self destruct at the same time. If the country can manage a smooth electoral process by establishing new rules of the game through consensus, it would leapfrog into a new level of political stability. But if it sputters and falls prey to a suicide attack — the law of unintended consequences would have yet another victim.
Pakistan is once again struggling to save itself — from itself.
The writer is a prominent journalist and hosts a prime time show on ARY News