Steady As Islamabad Goes

The Pakistan People's Party Nears the Finish Line

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani is showered with rose petals as he arrives at the Supreme Court in Islamabad. (Faisal Mahmood / Courtesy Reuters)

The standoff between the governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Pakistan's top court ended this week -- at least for now. On Thursday, the Supreme Court found Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, guilty of contempt of court. He was given a nominal sentence, which lasted only until the court adjourned. It was an imprisonment, those in the courtroom estimated, of around 30 seconds, after which he left the building a free man.

Gilani had found himself on trial for disobeying court orders to write to the Swiss authorities requesting them to reopen corruption cases against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. The government had argued that, as head of state, Zardari enjoys presidential immunity for such charges.

Although bringing Gilani to trial had seemed a sign of judicial activism by many PPP supporters, its decision to impose a lenient sentence, instead of the six months allowed by law, suggests that Pakistan's senior judges got cold feet. Presumably, they feared an outpouring of public anger if they had sought to actually imprison the prime minister.

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Indeed, despite constant stories about its unpopularity, the PPP still enjoys significant support in large swaths of the country. In interior Sindh and pockets of Karachi, and in Baluchistan and the Punjab, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the populist founder of the PPP, is still revered. And many of Pakistan's rural poor still believe that his party best represents their views. An overtly harsh sentence for Gilani could have unleashed them onto the streets, and the police might have been reluctant to put them down (as they were with the rioting following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, who was PPP

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