A three-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan has ruled that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, ceased to hold office from April 26, when it convicted him of contempt of court. It instructed the Election Commission to issue a notification of him ceasing to hold membership of the National Assembly, and also requested the President to ensure the constitutional election of a new Prime Minister. The bench, which was headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, gave its ruling on petitions by Ch Nisar Ali of the PML-N and the PTI’s Imran Khan, challenging the ruling of the Speaker of the National Assembly, who did not feel that the question of the PM’s disqualification had arisen. Though only a short order was announced, and the reasons are to be recorded later, it seems from the Chief Justice’s remarks during the hearing, that the Court did not look kindly on what appeared an attempt by the Speaker to adjudicate on the decision of a seven-member Bench. This seems to be as decisive a court ruling as the Supreme Court can give, and as the direction to the President seems to show, there is no choice left to the President but to summon the National Assembly so that it can elect a new Prime Minister.
The bench has made one thing crystal clear. It will not accept any other authority offering an interpretation of the Constitution in any way opposed to one it has made. Thus it has seen fit to intervene in a matter of membership of a House of Parliament, which it had previously left to its presiding officer and the Election Commission. Its disqualification of Ms Farahnaz Ispahani and Mr Rehman Malik for alleged dual nationality must be seen in this light. It is not just a matter of the membership of a House, but of what happens to the principle of judicial non-interference in the internal affairs of a legislature, when the legislature, here represented by the Speaker, sets out to thwart a judicial verdict.
However, the short order leaves some matters requiring clarification. First, the reason for the Prime Minister’s original conviction has not been addressed. He was convicted because the Supreme Court’s order in the NRO case, that the Prime Minister write to the Swiss authorities asking that the corruption cases against Asif Zardari, made before he became President, be restarted. Whereas the writing of those letters is incumbent upon Mr Gilani’s successor, it remains to be seen how far that successor is willing to go. It should not be forgotten that the new Prime Minister will only be in office for less than a year, before new elections are due, and he has to hand over to a caretaker. Second, as Mr Gilani is specified as ceasing to hold office from April 26, what becomes of all federal actions taking place since then? This does not affect all the PM’s actions, but also those of all ministers, who will be deemed as losing office along with the Prime Minister. This includes the Federal Budget, which was presented by a Finance Minister who had ceased to hold office. A further complication is that Budget has since been passed.
However, though that is not a small issue, there are larger issues at stake. The first issue is that of the succession, with many contenders emerging even though the tenure is to be limited. However, that might make it valuable, for it seems that any successor to Mr Gilani would also claim, in the event of a PPP win at the next general election, the right to continue in office. Another issue that seems involved is whether or not the PPP is willing to change from protecting the President from the consequences of his actions, to obedience of court verdicts. The PPP is not presently in a position to amend the Constitution, and perhaps thus any move against the Supreme Court would not bear fruit. Under the circumstances, rather than plunge the country into a chaotic struggle, it would be wise to continue in the democratic transition and install a new Prime Minister and expedite the schedule to general elections.