Gilani booted as Pakistan’s prime minister

Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani Supreme Court ousted Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani Tuesday, leaving an important U.S. ally without a chief executive and setting up a showdown between the country’s president and judiciary that could lead to political chaos.

The high court’s ruling, triggered by Gilani’s contempt conviction in April for failing to revive an old corruption case against Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, potentially sets up a constitutional clash between the judiciary and parliament, which is controlled by Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and a fragile coalition of allied parties.

For now, Zardari’s party appeared to accept that Gilani, along with his Cabinet, are no longer in government.

“Technically, after this Supreme Court decision, Gilani is no longer prime minister,” Qamar Zaman Kaira, a top party leader who up until Tuesday was information minister, said at a news conference. “And if the prime minister isn’t there, then the Cabinet is no longer there.”

Though Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry is revered in Pakistan as a bulwark against corruption, many experts believe his pursuit of the graft case against Zardari may be more of a political vendetta than a legal crusade.

Their feud dates back to the president’s first few weeks in office in 2008, when he resisted reinstating Chaudhry as chief justice. Zardari feared that Chaudhry would revive corruption charges that had dogged the Pakistani leader for years. Once reinstated, Chaudhry did exactly that.

It remained unclear whether Zardari’s party would use its clout in parliament to find a way around the court’s decision, possibly by enacting legislation nullifying the order. Party leaders and coalition allies were expected to meet Tuesday night and Wednesday to determine their strategy.

They will have to chart their course carefully. Resisting the order could trigger waves of opposition that could spill out into the streets and ultimately force the military to take over, as it has done in the past.

The party’s strategy isn’t likely to include organizing large-scale protests of its own against the court decision, Kaira said. The country’s most populous province, Punjab, is already reeling from violent demonstrations over crippling power outages in several cities. “If PPP calls its workers out to protest, there would be fear of civil war in the country,” Kaira said.

Even with Gilani out, Zardari’s party likely has the votes in parliament to pick a successor. But the turmoil also comes at a vulnerable moment for Zardari, as he braces for upcoming elections amid deep dissatisfaction with his government’s performance on pressing issues such as economic stagnation and daily outages that rob major cities of power for 12 hours or more.

The crisis is also likely to further complicate efforts to reopen Afghanistan-bound NATO supply routes through Pakistan that Islamabad shut down after U.S. airstrikes mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November. Gilani and Cabinet members such as Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar were involved in talks with the U.S. on reopening the routes, and as of Tuesday they are no longer in office.

Up until now, Gilani’s strategy has been to reject any assertion that the court has jurisdiction to disqualify him from office.

Many legal experts say the April 26 conviction of Gilani on contempt charges must lead to his disqualification under law. However, the law also allows the speaker of parliament to decide whether a convicted prime minister or lawmaker can stay in office. As many expected, Speaker Fehmida Mirza, a member of Gilani’s party, ruled against disqualifying the prime minister.

Opposition parties filed petitions challenging Mirza’s decision. A panel of three high court judges, led by Chaudhry, agreed.

In explaining the ruling, Chaudhry said the disqualification became effective the day of Gilani’s conviction. The ruling could raise doubts about the legality of a host of measures Gilani undertook since then, including stewardship of the recently passed annual budget.

Chaudhry also ordered Zardari to begin the parliamentary process of selecting a new prime minister.

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