Everything you need to know about the showdown between the Pakistan People’s Party and the Supreme Court of Pakistan

So you already know that Pakistan is, well, kind of a hot mess, as far as governance is concerned.

You also know that the Muslim country of 180 million has had, since Partition from India in 1947, a helter-skleter relationship with democratic institutions, with periods of civilian rule interspersed with healthy intervals of autocratic military regimes.  You know that on many vectors, Pakistan falls short of what even its neighbors have accomplished, not just with respect to democracy, but also with respect to rule of law, corruption, terrorism, press freedom and so on.  (Think of Pakistan, perhaps, as a 21st century version of mid-20th century Argentina, or any other South American country where democracy didn’t quite take, despite strong party identification.)

You know that Pakistan is a traditional U.S. ally and a key strategic relationship in the ongoing U.S. efforts in Afghanistan (and along the Af-Pak border), but that Pakistan’s political and military establishment rarely speaks with one voice and that Pakistan’s government more often hinders than helps the U.S. government in its ongoing anti-terror efforts.

But what of the latest political crisis there?  The prime minister has been dismissed by the Supreme Court? And the new prime minister may be dismissed as well? All because of some corruption charges against the president? But isn’t basically every public official in Pakistan corrupt?

It’s understandable that a crisis like this could leave your head spinning in a run-of-the-mill democracy, but in a place like Pakistan, with so many extrapolitical considerations, it’s nearly incomprehensible.

Without further ado, Suffragio presents a quick primer on what’s happened so far in the showdown, and what we might expect in the near future.

Why does Pakistan’s Supreme Court keep invalidating democratically appointed prime ministers?

During the last military dictatorship in Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf issued the National Reconciliation Ordinance in 2007, which granted amnesty for politicians and other key officials accused of corruption (as well as more unseemly charges like terrorism) between 1986 and 1999, the years between the prior military rule and the Musharraf era.  In those years, government switched hands largely between Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the center-left, more urban Pakistan People’s Party (اکستان پیپلز پارٹی, or the PPP), and Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the conservative, more rural Pakistan Muslim League (N) (اکستان مسلم لیگ ن,  or the PML-N).  Both Bhutto (before her assassination in December 2007) and Sharif, and their associates, were widely accused of corruption.  And probably with good reason, as Pakistan is ranked by Transparency International as among the most corrupt countries in the world.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan declared the National Reconciliation Ordinance unconstitutional in December 2009, however, resulting in the reinstitution of various charges against Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower (pictured above), who was elected president of Pakistan, succeeding Musharraf, in 2008.  In January 2010, the Supreme Court ordered Pakistan’s government to reopen charges against Zardari for graft allegations in Switzerland.

Fast forward to June 2012, and the government, led by prime minister Yousuf Raza Gillani (a PPP member and ally of Zardari) had still refused to do so.  The Supreme Court convicted Gillani of contempt of court and retroactively disqualified him from office on June 19.

His successor as prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, has also refused the latest deadline set by the Supreme Court to pursue the charges.

What will happen if and when the Supreme Court forces Ashraf out?

It’s no big loss.  Ashram, a former water minister in Gillani’s government, is also saddled with his own corruption allegations and, like his predecessor, he is hardly the second coming of Gladstone as a skillful parliamentarian.

As a senior PPP figure admitted yesterday, the PPP will keep installing prime ministers to replace Ashram and any other successor until the next general election, which is scheduled for February 18, 2013.

Why won’t the PPP just cave in and pursue the corruption case?

Because it doesn’t have to.  The PPP currently controls the presidency and the National Assembly of Pakistan.  As noted, it can just keep appointing new prime ministers and hope to take its case to the next general election.

From the PPP’s perspective, there’s nothing to be gained by ceding authority from the National Assembly (and from the PPP and the PML-N, institutionally, as Pakistan’s leading parties) to the Supreme Court — and furthermore, they can argue that the judiciary’s rulings are an infringement upon the mandate of a democratically-elected government.

Today, for example Gillani himself lashed out at the judiciary:

[Gillani] remarked sarcastically that there is no need of elections as the judges want to govern the country. “We have fought against all dictators and were always successful, but today the judiciary has become a dictator.”

While saying that a third force has always been blamed for derailing democracy in the country, [Gillani] said that the judiciary has become that third force by using the Constitution in an unconstitutional manner. “The judiciary has become the third force for which the army was blamed in the past, and today they want a controlled democracy, as the institution has been politicised with clear and determined political intentions.”

The PPP is happy with an approach that looks to the next election to validate its view, and even if it loses (and it probably will), better to lose an election in the short-term than to set a precedent that could endanger the corruption that has allowed the PPP (and the PML-N) to thrive, both politically and economically, for decades.

What is the current makeup of the National Assembly?

After the last general election in 2008, the PPP won the largest share of the vote and the largest number of seats (124) in the 340-seat National Assembly, not improbably because of a wave of sympathy in the wake of Bhutto’s assassination — she had returned to Pakistan to lead the PPP in the first set of more-or-less open elections since 1997.

Sharif’s PML-N won just 91, and although his party joined an early coalition with the PPP for the sole purpose of forcing Musharraf into retirement, it quickly withdrew from the coalition.

A third group, a party of PML-N centrists formed earlier in the decade to support Musharraf, the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) (پاکستان مسلم لیگ ق, or the PML-Q) won just 54.

The more liberal, urban-based Muttahida Quami Movement (متحدہ قومی موومنٹ, or the MQM) won 25.

There’s no way that the PML-N will form an alternative governing coalition with the PML-Q or the MQM, so the PPP will effectively control Pakistan’s government through the next election.

What damage has the ongoing three-year showdown between the PPP and the Supreme Court done to Pakistan?

It’s not clear if it’s done any real damage — in fact, it may have done some good in strengthening Pakistan’s head of government at the expense of its head of state.

Zardari was never as popular as his late wife (nor as popular as their son, the 23-year old Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, who is expected to one day lead to PPP in his own right), and he’s become less popular as president.  In the wake of the firestorm from the Supreme Court’s ruling, Zardari weathered calls throughout 2010 to step down as president.  He was able to remain in the position mostly because he agreed to cede much of the power of the presidency to the prime minister, including, crucially, control over the country’s nuclear weapons.  In effect, the crisis has resulted in a series of reforms that has transformed the Pakistani presidency into a figurehead role (for now, at least).

As noted, the Gillani government wasn’t exactly a model one — it’s presided over a new era of stagflation: GDP growth has slowed from the Musharraf years, but inflation has skyrocketed, while Gillani abandoned the previous Pakistani commitment to privatization in favor of a state capitalism model.  On foreign affairs, the U.S.-led raid that led to the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden succeeded in spite of Gillani’s government and unbeknownst in advance to Gillani, not through any of Gillani’s efforts.  You can look to the problems both before and after the bin Laden raid to understand why the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is especially fraught these days.

What can we expect in the days, weeks and months ahead?

Today, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, made clear that the judiciary will not back down from what it sees as its mission to implement the rule of law.

Given that it’s Pakistan, there’s an outside chance that if events spiral out of control too rapidly, the military will stage another coup.

But it seems likely that, sooner or later, the Supreme Court will disqualify Ashraf, and Pakistan will get yet another prime minister.

It’s unclear if that will necessarily lead to early elections, as elections will occur within six months in any event.  But the PPP is already apparently discussing the appointment of an interim government that would lead to early elections.

Who will win the next election?

Polls are not entirely reliable, but the latest from Gallup Pakistan shows that the PML-N leads with 33% of voter support, while the PPP has fallen to 21%.  The surprise is the gain of the secular, anti-corruption, liberal Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice or PTI, پاکستان تحريک), which polls at 17% and is gaining momentum as the next election approaches.

The PTI was formed by former cricket star Imran Khan in 1996 on a liberal, anti-corruption platform.  It supported Musharraf’s coup in 1999 on the grounds that he would bring an end to the corruption of the Sharif-Bhutto years, but Khan ultimately became disenchanted with Musharraf’s military rule.  The PTI currently holds no seats in the National Assembly because it boycotted the 2008 general election out of concerns that the vote was fraudulent.

Khan’s distance from each of the Musharraf regime, the PPP and the PML-N has boosted him in the upcoming election, and he’s been received with increasing popularity throughout the country.

It’s too early to count out the chances of the PPP (with its electoral machine in Sindh province) and the PML-N (with its own electoral machine in Punjab province), but it certainly seems that Khan could benefit most from the PPP’s showdown with the judiciary could be Khan.

The PML-N’s national polling is boosted by its performance in Punjab province (the country’s largest), where it wins fully 44% to just 221% for the PTI and 12% for the PPP.  Meanwhile, the PPP takes 47% in Sindh province, to just 6% for the PTI and 5% for the PML-N.

The PTI will have to make inroads in both regions if it hopes to break through to win the election.

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