Cornered in Lahore

Ejaz Haider

Posted online: Tuesday , Jan 19, 2010 at 0152 hrs

http://www.indianexpress.com/news/cornered-in-lahore/569017/0

President Asif Ali Zardari arrived January 13 in Lahore on a week-long visit of Punjab. The Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who had gone to Turkey, has extended his stay there for a day to avoid meeting with Zardari. And while the CM is in Turkey, his elder brother and party leader, Nawaz Sharif, is in China.

Zardari’s whistle-stop is owed to his decision to go on the offensive shortly after the Supreme Court struck down the National Reconciliation Ordinance on December 16, 2009, declaring the instrument void ab initio and ultra vires of the Constitution.

The Ordinance was promulgated in 2007 by Pervez Musharraf to allow the return to Pakistan of slain former PM and leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, Benazir Bhutto, by quashing all court cases against her and spouse Zardari. But the NRO also benefited, as we now know, over 8000 other persons, mostly bureaucrats.

The government’s offensive is two-pronged: fight the legal battle and back it with political thrust.

On the legal side, the government has filed a review petition challenging the SC verdict on at least three counts. The petition says the ruling that convictions in absentia were applicable goes against the SC’s own earlier rulings. The petition also contends that the SC cannot claim, as it did in its short order, that it could issue directions to the government to review requests, claims and status of cases outside Pakistan since such powers are the exclusive preserve of the executive.

Similarly, the review petition says the SC has overstepped its bounds by directing the National Accountability Bureau to present periodic reports of actions taken by NAB to the SC’s monitoring cell. The problem is the government has changed its counsel, and that could potentially allow the SC to throw out the petition.

Yet the real counter-offensive by the government (read: Zardari) is political.

Zardari has managed to get votes of confidence from three provincial assemblies of Sindh, Balochistan and the North West Frontier. He hopes thereby to not only reduce space for the SC to take a decision in isolation from political realities but also cut off the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz from other political forces in the country — especially, if the Punjab Assembly does not give him a vote of confidence.

That vote of confidence remains stillborn. Raja Riaz, the PPP senior minister in Punjab, where the party is a junior coalition partner of the PMLN, was quite excited about a joint draft he was working on with the PMLN’s provincial law minister which was supposed to clinch the deal on the basis of a quid pro quo. But the Punjab CM seems to have thrown a spanner in the works, and the two sides haven’t moved on it despite earlier reports that it just awaited signatures.

An added problem seems to be the fact that Zardari, who is lodged in the Governor’s House, is acting both as the president as well as co-chairman of the PPP. However, constitutionally, he can’t be seen to promote the interests of one party, being the symbol of the federation. But this is a minor technical irritant because Zardari is convinced that the SC, while relying on the letter of the law, enjoys the PMLN’s backing.

For the PPP, since Zardari has made the original mistake of standing for president, his loss would be politically a heavy price even if the PMLN did not push hard after that for mid-term elections. Here Zardari’s future and that of the PPP converge irredeemably — hence, the statement by Prime Minister Gilani, after the NRO verdict, that if the president was pushed out, he would leave with him.

The PMLN claims it does not want mid-term elections. But all its effort is geared towards deepening the crisis to that end. The Punjab government is running the province on a huge overdraft because it spent its kitty on winning people through ill-advised “people-centric” spending while hoping it would force mid-term elections.

The battle-lines are therefore drawn yet again. Zardari has been lashing out in his public speeches at “conspirators”. He has also been playing a tricky signalling game with the army. While in Sindh he hinted at playing the Sindh card if he was pushed to the wall, and also rallied the three smaller provinces behind him; he then went on and praised sacrifices by the army. Now he is in Lahore to make an impact in Punjab, especially central Punjab.

Zardari has decided to fight back and fight dirty if need be. He seems to hope that by putting political heat on the court he would be able to force the judges into lateral thinking about the political consequences for the country of an unfavourable verdict. It won’t be easy.

The writer is a consulting editor at ‘The Friday Times’, Lahore. The views are his own

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