Virtual judicial coup

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry

The Supreme Court’s (SC’s) verdict on the petitions challenging the ruling of the Speaker of the National Assembly (NA) that rejected the argument that Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani stood disqualified after being convicted and sentenced for contempt of court has pronounced that he does stand disqualified, not only from the premiership, but from membership of parliament as well.

Not just that, the SC in its short order has laid down that he cannot stand for election for five years. To that end, the SC has sent instructions to the Election Commission (EC) to issue a notification to that effect. Meantime the PPP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC), which happened to be meeting when the verdict was announced, revealed its decisions on the crisis through a press conference by PPP leaders. The gist of the CEC’s decisions was that despite having reservations about the SC’s verdict, they had accepted the court’s finding that the conviction and sentencing till the rising of the court of Gilani for contempt on April 26 meant that he was no longer the PM, and with retrospective effect, had been removed on and since that date.

The PPP has appealed to its workers and supporters to remain calm and restrained, despite the fact that the verdict is bound to inflame opinion in the PPP and allied camp. The CEC has empowered party Co-chairperson President Asif Ali Zardari to take whatever decisions he thinks fit regarding a replacement for Gilani. The intriguing question of course is whether the new PM will suffer the same pressure from the SC to write the letter to the Swiss authorities regarding President Asif Ali Zardari that the court was insisting on Gilani writing, and refusal to comply with which had attracted the contempt conviction for the former PM. In that case, the looming confrontation between state institutions, which began as a confrontation between the judiciary and the executive, could expand to now a confrontation between the judiciary and parliament as well.

After all, the SC’s verdict overruling the Speaker of the NA too has set an unprecedented example, one that will reverberate in our jurisprudence for a long time to come. Questions have also been raised whether all the decisions and acts of the former PM since April 26 to date stand. The most important of these acts was the passing of the budget. It is possible that the detailed judgement may throw more light on this matter. Normally, courts are mindful that retrospective judgements should not disrupt things done and transactions closed to an extent that causes greater difficulties.

Yousaf Raza Gilani was unanimously elected PM after the 2008 elections, arguably in the context of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in end 2007, a tragedy that led to widespread unrest and riots, especially in Sindh. The sympathy factor had a great deal to do with the results of the 2008 elections in which, despite garnering only a plurality, the PPP was the only party in a position to form a coalition government. The other factor that worked in favour of the consensus that surrounded Gilani’s election as PM was the relatively good relations at the time between the PPP and the main opposition party the PML-N. By 2009, those relations had already soured to the point where the coalition saw the departure of the PML-N and its open opposition to the seeming reluctance of the PPP to restore Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and the deposed superior judiciary.

Since then, the impression has been unmistakable that the SC has tilted more against the incumbent PPP than in any other direction, even resorting to picking and choosing which cases to hear on a priority or fast track basis. This has invited criticism of the judiciary for alleged bias. True or not, such criticism may well find a fresh lease of life after the SC, in an unprecedented verdict, has deposed a sitting PM. Such ‘treatment’ at the hands of the judiciary is likely to resurrect the party’s memory of past injustices at the hands of the judiciary, the most poignant example being the case of Z A Bhutto. This verdict will have legal as well as political implications. Whether our nascent democratic system will survive these fresh storms can only be left to the imagination at this point. * -Dailytimes