Pakistani high court disqualifies prime minister from holding office

Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- In a move that deals a severe broadside to embattled President Asif Ali Zardari's government, the Pakistani Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the ouster of Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani following his contempt conviction earlier this year for failing to revive an old corruption case against the Pakistani leader.

The high court's ruling could throw the country into political chaos and potentially set up a constitutional clash between the judiciary and parliament, which is controlled by Zardari's Pakistan People's Party and a fragile coalition of allied parties. It remained unclear whether Gilani and the ruling party would resist the high court’s decision -- possibly by enacting legislation nullifying the order -- or would acquiesce and have Gilani leave office.

Even if Gilani were forced to step down, Zardari's party likely has the votes in parliament to pick a successor. But the turmoil comes at a vulnerable moment for the president, as he braces for upcoming elections and an electorate that is deeply dissatisfied with his government's performance on tackling the country's most pressing issues, including economic stagnation and daily electrical outages that rob major cities of 12 or more hours of power every day.

If Zardari and Gilani opt to hold their ground and ignore the order, they could risk triggering waves of opposition that could spill out into the streets and ultimately force the country's powerful military to step in and take over, as it has done in the past.

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 Gilani's conviction on contempt charges must lead to his disqualification as prime minister under Pakistani law. However, the law also allows parliament's speaker to decide whether a convicted prime minister or lawmaker can stay in office. As many expected, National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza, a member of Gilani's party, ruled against disqualifying the prime minister.

Opposition parties filed petitions challenging Mirza's decision and calling for Gilani's disqualification. A panel of three high court judges, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, agreed, ruling that Gilani's conviction meant automatic disqualification from office.

In explaining the ruling, Chaudhry also said the disqualification became effective April 26 -- the day of the conviction -- which could raise doubts about the legality of a host of measures Gilani undertook since the conviction, including stewardship of the recently passed annual budget.

The contempt ruling hinged on a case involving allegations of kickbacks in Switzerland, for which Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, were convicted in absentia in 2003. They were accused of taking kickbacks from Swiss companies during Bhutto’s rule in the 1990s. The case was on hold while the couple appealed, and was later dropped at the request of the Pakistani government in 2008.

Since 2009, the Supreme Court has repeatedly demanded that Gilani's government write a letter to Swiss authorities asking that the case against Zardari be revived. Gilani has consistently refused, instead contending that, as president, Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution.

In convicting Gilani of the contempt charge, the high court chose not to impose any jail term, though it could have sentenced him to a maximum of six months in prison.

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-- Alex Rodriguez

Photo: Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in April. Credit: B.K. Bangash / Associated Press

 
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