Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from office today based on a previous conviction for contemptof court. The ruling, which backdated the disqualification to April 26, the date of the original contempt conviction, throws Pakistan into legal and political chaos and may have an important impact on Pakistan’s upcoming elections.
The court’s verdict overrules an earlier decision by Pakistan’s speaker of parliament not to pursue Gilani’s disqualification from office. Parliament passed separate resolutions expressing confidence in both Gilani and the speaker’s decision. The speaker and the attorney general maintain the court overstepped its boundaries by ruling on a parliamentary issue.
Supporters of the populist Supreme Court, opposition politicians, and the government’s detractors will hail the decision as a triumph of the rule of law. The government is billing the move as misplaced judicial activism and part of a vendetta between the widely liked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the collectively derided President Asif Ali Zardari, with Gilani being the fall guy.
The government now has its work cut out for it given that this is an election year. While it has enough of a majority to elect a new prime minister of its choice, and had previously been feeling bullish about its election prospects, the decision will tarnish its reputation. It will work hard to portray the decision as an army-backed attempt at a judicial coup against an elected government.
What adds spice to the dish is the fact that the court’s decision comes at the same time as another case in which the Chief Justice’s son is in the dock on charges of taking bribes in order to influence court decisions. The Gilani drama will surely distract from the mud-slinging that was being directed at the court, and government supporters will likely waste little time in pointing out the coincidence.
At a time when Pakistan is facing a general election, economic stagnation, debilitating power cuts, and a fraught renegotiation of relations with the U.S., it needs a judicial crisis like it needs a second bin Laden raid. Whenever things seem to be settling for Pakistan, count on someone giving the pot a vigorous stir.