On April 26, Pakistan’s Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of convicting Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of contempt of court. While the prime minister avoided a jail sentence, the conviction could force him from the premiership, has ramifications on Pakistan’s internal political dynamics and could distract from the reconciliation process currently underway with the United States.
No Jail Time, but a Time Out
Prime Minister Gilani was in the dock on charges of contempt for repeatedly refusing to write to Swiss authorities to reopen old corruption cases against Asif Ali Zardari, the sitting President and co-chairman, along with Gilani, of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). The contempt charges could have landed Gilani in jail for six months but the court chose instead to sentence him to symbolic detention in the courtroom until the judges left the chamber, a sentence lasting no more than a minute. The verdict served as a final flourish to the high drama that had surrounded the judicial proceedings ever since the court first summoned Gilani on January 19.
What remains unclear is whether the ruling is a victory for Gilani and the PPP or an albatross around their neck that will bring them down in the next election. Although Gilani is not serving a jail sentence, he is now a convicted felon and the first sitting prime minister in Pakistan’s history to be convicted of contempt of court. The conviction might cost Gilani his seat in parliament and, by extension, the premiership, since Pakistan’s constitution forbids anyone with a criminal conviction from serving as a parliamentarian. Indeed, the court’s justices, while reading their verdict, made specific reference to this fact, indicating that they hoped to see exactly that clause invoked in order to sack Gilani. The leaders of major opposition parties called on Gilani to resign after the conviction, saying he had lost all "moral authority." Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf, threatened to start a massive civil disobedience movement if Gilani did not step down. Analysts further questioned whether the PPP’s coalition partners would stick with the PPP and a convict prime minister "enmeshed in controversy." Opposition parties are sure to use the conviction as a campaign slogan against the PPP in the upcoming election to be held sometime within the next ten months.
The Long Road to Joblessness
The PPP has rallied strongly around the prime minister since his conviction and has vowed to both fight the ruling and oppose his ouster. The process by which Gilani could be forced from office is long, tortuous, and could be challenged and delayed at every step. Gilani could keep his post for months.
Gilani and the PPP have publicly stated their intention to appeal the ruling. Only once the appeal is dismissed can petitions be brought in parliament for Gilani to be disqualified to hold a seat in the National Assembly, Pakistan’s lower house (and even the dismissed appeal can be filed for "further review," dragging the process out even longer). Authority over the proceedings rests with the Speaker of the House, Fahmida Mirza, who is herself a PPP stalwart and would have the ability to delay if not derail the process. Even if a petition were to successfully get through the National Assembly, final authority rests with the Election Commission of Pakistan. Any decision taken by the commission to unseat Gilani would be subject to challenge and appeal as well. The PPP holds enough seats in parliament to be able to pick the next prime minister, meaning little would change politically even if Gilani was dismissed.
The PPP’s Response
The PPP is fully aware of these facts and is openly pursuing a strategy to prolong any final decision for as long as possible or until the prime minister’s term in office lapses (Gilani is already the longest serving premier in Pakistan’s history) and any ruling becomes irrelevant. It is also clear that the PPP plans to use the conviction as part of its own rallying cry come the next elections. The PPP will likely try to present Gilani as a political martyr and the contempt decision as the witch-hunt of an activist court acting on the direction of an interventionist military with a historical agenda against the party. While opposition parties will be trying to paint Gilani as a criminal, it remains unclear if contempt of court is a crime that could get the blood of the masses boiling, given that they have repeatedly and knowingly elected leaders whom they generally believed to be guilty of much more visible criminality such as corruption and graft-the PPP and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz have, for example, made repeated returns to power at the ballot box despite having their tenures cut short on grounds of rampant corruption.
In the end, while not clear-cut, the verdict can be considered a victory of sorts for the PPP. In what had become a charged, almost personal battle of wills between the government and the judiciary, the judiciary seems to have blinked first. Gilani is still the prime minister for the time being and, more importantly for the PPP, Zardari is still the president. Zardari was the ultimate prize throughout the whole proceeding; putting Gilani in the dock was the court’s way of attempting to force the government to open corruption proceedings against Zardari. The government consistently refused judicial pressure on the grounds that Zardari has presidential immunity from prosecution; the court-initiated procedure for sacking the prime minister could take months; and a new prime minister will likely be from the PPP as well. For better or worse, Zardari remains inviolate and looks to remain so until the next elections.
The ruling relieves much of the pressure from the government and lessens fears of an irreparable institutional clash between the judiciary and executive. What it does do, however, is throw the matter out of the courts and back into the highly charged political arena in an election year; all parties are likely to latch onto and spin the issue in their favor during campaign time.
Alongside the political drama, Pakistan is currently engaged in a complicated and long-drawn out reconciliation process with the United States. Pakistan is renegotiating its entire terms of engagement with the U.S. and is in the vital stages of finalizing agreements over the reopening of NATO supply routes to Afghanistan, resumption of reimbursements for counter-terrorism assistance and other cooperation issues. While the verdict provides for cast continuity, the internal political wrangling prompted by the court ruling could distract the government from focusing its attention on these key issues. The government is also less likely to support controversial or unpopular requests from the U.S. in parliament, since it will want to limit the number of issues on which opposition parties can vilify it and score political points against it in front of a broadly anti-American electorate. There is also the question of whether, given the now questionable legality of Gilani’s status as prime minister, any decisions signed by him following the conviction could be dredged up later as illegal and therefore void.
While the ruling is a positive development for Pakistan in terms of furthering the democratic process and strengthening a historically weak judiciary in Pakistan, it does not bring closure to the issue of Gilani’s status or to Zardari’s corruption charges. It complicates the political debate in Pakistan in an election year, and possibly delays and complicates finalization of agreements with the U.S. on key bilateral issues. Where the dust settles remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the ruling muddies far more issues than it clarifies.
Reza Nasim Jan is the Pakistan team lead at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.