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Pakistan’s constitutional nightmare over, but for how long?

Zafar Bangash

Prime minister Nawaz Sharif won the gladiatorial contest with the country’s president and the chief justice, banishing both into the political wilderness, but it was a gruelling experience for him. His real challenge - of taking the economic bull by the horns - remains undiminished.

The three-month political power struggle also exposed the nature of the judiciary showing the justices, especially the chief justice, as narrow-minded political intriguers. With the honourable justices jumping into the not-so-honourable activity of political intrigue, its image was badly tarnished.

The power struggle escalated into high political drama over the last two weeks. President Farooq Leghari became the first casualty, resigning on December 2, followed by chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah, who went on three weeks’ leave. He was immediately summoned to appear before the full bench of the supreme court to face charges relating to his ‘illegal’ appointment to the top spot three years ago.

Only a day earlier, it had looked as if Sharif would be consigned to political oblivion. Yet he has emerged much stronger with virtually nobody to challenge his authority, except the ultimate power wielders in the country - the military.

Political developments, spinning almost out of control, took a dramatic turn with Leghari’s resignation. Announcing his decision at a press conference in Islamabad, he tried to don the mantle of a constitutional good guy by blaming Sharif for much of the trouble. He said he had opted to resign rather than act unconstitutionally. This was a reference to Sharif’s recommendation to the president to appoint justice Ajmal Mian as interim chief justice while the controversy surrounding Sajjad Ali Shah’s appointment was sorted out by the supreme court.

Sharif’s recommendation had the support of 10 other justices. Further, the ruling Muslim League had initiated moves to impeach Leghari for failing to abide by the government’s recommendations.

The post-facto struggle to occupy the moral high ground aside, Leghari was forced to quit because the army chief, general Jahangir Karamat refused to back his suggestion for dismissing the national assembly and call fresh elections. A day earlier, the former chief justice had struck down the 13th amendment passed by the national assembly in June.

This in effect restored the infamous 8th amendment under which the president could dismiss the prime minister and parliament. It was a mischievous move by Shah which could have thrown Pakistan into even greater political turmoil had the army chief not put his foot down.

Before Leghari’s dramatic resignation, there were fears that the army might take over. In earlier times, it may have done just that. This time, however, it was constrained by the country’s economic mess. Only Sharif has a remote chance of putting it back on track. Besides, another election, barely nine months after the last one, would not have solved the political crisis. In all probability, Sharif would have returned to power with his electoral strength virtually intact.

How and why did the crisis erupt so soon after Sharif’s landslide victory last February? In Pakistan’s convoluted politics, the judiciary also got involved. The former chief justice in particular made a fool of himself by jumping into the political fray without sparing a thought for the fact that it is not the judiciary’s role to make laws; only to interpret them.

Justice Shah had gone on the war path with the prime minister when he suspended the 14th amendment on October 29. This opened the floodgates to horse-trading in the national assembly. Although there were no takers this time, it exposed the chief justice’s hand. His partisanship was further highlighted when he refused to accept Sharif’s apology in the contempt of court charge on November 19.

Immediately thereafter, Shah proceeded to entertain a petition challenging the 13th amendment, bypassing a number of other petitions that were pending before the bench. Shah’s action was a complete reversal of his earlier position. He had stated last year that the eighth amendment, passed by a military regime, was bad but it was not the judiciary’s job to amend it. He said, quite rightly, that it was for the parliament to do so.

At this stage, the other justices also got in on the act. The supreme court bench was split in a way that dealt a massive blow to its already low prestige. ‘The Supreme Court has in effect collapsed in a mutiny against the chief justice, also locked in a losing fight with Mr Sharif,’ as the Times of London put it on December 3.

Wassem Sajjad, the senate chairman, automatically took over as interim president. According to the constitution, the president must be elected within 30 days, i.e., by December 31. This is the job of the national assembly, the senate and the four provincial assemblies.

While Sharif’s anointed candidate will be a shoe-in by dint of his massive parliamentary majority, who gets his nod is still up in the air. The current front-runner appears to be finance minister Sartaj Aziz, who is also secretary general of the ruling Muslim League. Waseem Sajjad, who was a candidate against Leghari in 1993, also harbours presidential ambitions.

In Pakistani politics, such issues are seldom decided on merit. Numerous other factors come into play. Some have to do with a person’s pedigree, others with the province in which he was born and so on. With the prime minister and army chief both from Punjab and the outgoing and acting chief justices from Sindh province, Sartaj Aziz’s chances are enhanced because he is from the North West Frontier Province. Waseem Sajjad’s being from Punjab reduces his attraction.

A number of other names have also been floated: Elahi Bukhsh Soomro, speaker of the national assembly, Gauhar Ayub, the foreign minister, and Ghaus Ali Shah, another Muslim League stalwart, and a Sindhi. Even Sardar Akbar Khan Bugti and Sardar Ataullah Mengal’s names have been mentioned (both are from Baluchistan) but Sharif would naturally want a trusted person in the top spot. Bugti has already rule himself out saying sarcastically that he has ‘too stiff a spine’ to become the president.

Aziz has two other things going for him. He is a former bureaucrat and therefore, familiar with the workings of the troublesome bureaucracy. Sharif needs someone capable of tackling and reining in the pukka sahibs. Aziz’s other asset, perhaps even more important than the first, is his close rapport with officials at the world bank and the international monetary fund. Given Pakistan’s precarious financial situation, Aziz would be highly useful in the presidential slot.

While the country is gripped by political issues, it is the economy that needs immediate attention. Plagued by budget deficits, high inflation, sluggish industrial growth and a large gap in the balance of trade estimated at more than US$3 billion, Sharif must tackle this soon otherwise his political victory would be hollow.

Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 20

Sha'ban 16, 14181997-12-16

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