Pakistan’s Parliament passed a key resolution Monday night calling for the country’s other state institutions – the Army and Supreme Court – to remain within their constitutional limits.
The resolution is a welcome boost for beleaguered Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani who earlier in the day was charged by the Supreme Court with contempt for failing to reopen old corruption cases against his ally President Asif Ali Zardari. If found guilty, Mr. Gilani faces dismissal and the possibility of jail time.
Gilani described Monday’s vote as “a welcome day for democracy,” adding that it endorses Parliament’s supremacy.
Pakistan's military traditionally enjoys wide latitude in shaping the country's national security policies and has stepped in numerous times – often with the Supreme Court's blessing – to overthrow civilian governments that challenged its authority. The Gilani government has been trying to circumscribe the military's role particularly after the embarrassing discovery of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a military garrison town last year. Last week, Pakistan’s Army issued a statement criticizing the Prime Minister and promising “grievous consequences,” raising fears of another military coup.
Today's backing in Parliament suggests Pakistan's political leadership prefers Gilani and his government to stay in office until elections expected later this year. This support from Parliament, as well as recent warm statements by Gilani toward the military, have tamped down the concerns about a coup – for now.
Zaffar Abbas, editor of leading-English daily Dawn, says the resolution will strengthen Gilani's hand, despite a last-ditch walk-out by some opposition parties.
“The majority want the system to continue. If a consensus had been reached they would have liked it, but still the house has passed it,” he says.
However, the future of the government still remains uncertain as it faces down two major cases in court.
The first concerns a political amnesty known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2009. When the Court overturned the amnesty, it expected Gilani to help reopen old corruption cases against President Zardari.
Zardari argued, however, that as head of state he enjoys immunity from prosecution, and Gilani did not pursue it. That may change as court pressure on Gilani mounts.
According to Supreme Court advocate Feisal Naqvi, the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) may end up sending a letter to Swiss authorities to help reopen the old cases against President Zardari before the next date of hearing on Thursday, in order to avoid Gilani’s dismissal.
Mr. Abbas, on the other hand, says the judiciary is more likely to get the prime minister’s legal team to respond to the contempt charges rather than dismissing the prime minister.
The second case relates to a secret memorandum sent by unknown persons to the United States, seeking American help in curtailing Pakistan’s Army. Zardari denies any role in the scandal, which cost former Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani his job. Mansoor Ijaz, a US businessmen who says he co-authored the memo and brought it to light, is due to give evidence to the court on Jan. 25.
A further interesting aspect to Monday’s vote was a failure by Pakistan’s main opposition party, the PML-N, to side with the government despite a recent record of standing up to the Army. The resolution still passed with a majority of parliament including some members of other opposition parties.
Chaudhry Nisar Ali, leader of the opposition in parliament, attempted to table amendments to the resolution requiring the government to endorse all orders of the Supreme Court and refrain from making hostile statements toward the Army in public. When those amendments failed, he led a walk-out, saying: “There is no threat to democracy. This incompetent government is trying to support itself through this hollow resolution.”
According to senior Pakistani journalist Amir Mateen, the statements represent a mellowing of the party’s anti-Army stance which it has held since elections in 2008 and may be the result of an attempt to make political hay in what politicians and pundits alike expect to be an election year.