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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 leader at the time). In other words, the light sentence helped avoid a potential tense standoff.
Even so, Gilani is by no means out of the woods. Political rivals, sensing his weakness, have made his return to parliament difficult. On Friday, parliamentarians of the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the main opposition party, stormed out when Gilani addressed the assembly. Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the PML-N, has called on him to resign. In response, Gilani, believing he has the numbers on his side, challenged Sharif to bring a no confidence motion if "he thinks he can dissolve the government." (Winning a former PML-N seat in a by-election in Multan, on the very day of Gilani's conviction, must have strengthened PPP confidence.) Meanwhile, the media will continue to question how a convict can have the moral authority to remain prime minister.
Compared with the political drama of a few months ago, when an anonymous memo requesting U.S. protection from a military coup that Islamabad feared was in the offing seemed like it would bring about the government's downfall, last week's events are fairly mundane. Contrary to expectations, the PPP government, which had been supine to the military establishment and the judiciary for the first few years of its tenure, found the steel to stare them down.
Memogate, as it was dubbed by the media, had seen the military push out its bête noir, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, who was implicated in the memo scandal. The government unexpectedly fought back against the military establishment's offensive. In December, Islamabad publicly called out the military, describing it as a "state within a state," and questioned how bin Laden had been allowed to live in Pakistan for six years. Still smarting from the bin Laden revelations, the generals apparently had no stomach to take on the government. After that, the memo case got kicked into the long grass.
With Memogate faltering and the military establishment feeling exposed, it was only a matter of time before the contempt case, too, lost its teeth. After the military retreated somewhat, the Supreme Court no longer felt emboldened to single-handedly take on the government. Hence, the compromise judgment we saw this week. The angry three-way standoff, which I first wrote about in "Why Pakistan's Zardari Will Not Fall to a Military Coup" (ForeignAffairs.com, January 22, 2012), has ended in a whimper. Each party, for now, has laid down its guns.
There are still many obstacles ahead for Pakistan's beleaguered PPP government, but it is possible that it might become the first democratic government in Pakistan's history to complete a full term. Possible -- but only just. If it does make it to February 2013, when the current parliamentary term ends, the party will attempt to cling to power for another term. The opposition has been split in recent months by the increasing popularity of Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. He expected to make electoral gains, but mostly at the expense of Sharif. Depending on how many seats the PML-N can capture outside of its traditional stronghold in the Punjab, Pakistan could conceivably see a hung parliament with the PPP as the largest party in a coalition government. If that occurs, the military and the judiciary could once more pick up their guns.