Despite the government getting a temporary respite till November 1st, when its review petition regarding the declaration of National Reconciliation Ordinance as illegal by the Supreme Court will be heard, the gauntlet thrown at Mr. Zardari and his cohorts is still very much in place. In the end analysis, being allowed to change the lawyer representing the government proved to be a pyrrhic victory.
The tension in the air can be judged by the crisis created by media reports on Thursday that the government was all set to de-notify the reappointment of the judges of the Supreme Court including Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. All seventeen judges of the apex court assembled in the Supreme Court building late in the night to thwart such an eventuality. The prime minister and the presidential spokesmen were forced to issue statements to scorch these reports.
In a pre-emptive move the apex court issued a press release stating that judges could only be removed through the procedure laid out in Article 209 of the Constitution. It also formed a seventeen-member bench to take cognizance of the matter. Despite the attorney generals emphatic denials, the court has asked for a written statement from the prime minister on the matter.
Whatever the real intention of the government about the apex court, this latest stand-off is bound to further raise the ante. Clouds of uncertainty permeating the body politic are bound to thicken. If the government, as it claims, had no intentions to de-notify the judges, how did the report figure prominently on the electronic media? The chief justice does not blame the media for these rumours. Then who else is to be blamed?
Did the judges burn the midnight oil in full force, merely acting on some media reports? Or they had some credible information provided to them on the basis of which they took the preemptive move of issuing a press release at the fag end of deadline for newspapers to go to bed. Surely the court and the government should get to the bottom of it. Who are these non-state actors who want to scuttle the system come what may?
Those who are keen to see the back of the government want the apex court to finish the job for them. They believe the military should lend a helping hand in such an endeavour. Some amongst them who do not have any firm commitment to democracy would not even mind an overt military takeover. It is no coincidence that efforts of such elements have redoubled ever since General Kayani got a three years extension as COAS.
In the absence of the militarys interest to overtly intervene to unseat a constitutionally elected government, various formulas have been doing the rounds for months now. The initial trial balloon floated more than a year ago by some television anchors and newspaper editors was the minus one formula.
This meant: get rid of President Zardari and appoint the Chief Justice of Pakistan as a caretaker president akin to what the military did in Bangladesh. General Kayani distanced himself from this half-baked scheme by confiding to a group of editors that the so-called formula had not worked in Bangladesh. Why should he lend his name to it in Pakistan?
Consistent deterioration of the economy, especially in the aftermath of devastating floods, and slippage in governance has provided grist to the rumour mills. Prime Minister Gilani who till recently had enjoyed reasonably good relations with virtually all the political parties, including those outside the parliament, has now become a target for an in-house change.
The prime minister who had earlier played a pivotal role in elevation and appointment of judges, as the Chief Justice of Pakistan had desired, was badly snubbed by Ch. Iftikhar. The Chief Justice not only refuted the claim of having met the prime minister, he also termed the appointment of his crony as Chairman of OGDC illegal. Reportedly confiding in his close friends, Gilani now smells a nexus between the courts and the military.
In this backdrop, efforts to find a technocrat from within the parliament to replace him have been redoubled by the ever-increasing number of detractors of the PPP led coalition. However, such an arrangement simply cannot work unless supported by the PML (N) or the PPP. And why should the PPP sign its own death warrant by supporting such a move?
As for Mian Nawaz Sharif, he has refused to play ball till now. He has resisted moves to unify the Muslim League despite intense pressure being exerted on him. In fact, to thwart these moves, he has conveniently absented himself from the scene by taking time off in London.
Mian Sahib is wary of both the Pagara League and the PML (Q). Nor does he want to have truck with a military backed government that he does not control. He would rather wait out for the government to collapse under its own weight and go for early elections than be part of a half-baked set up.
The same cannot be said, however, of his party stalwarts. The kind of language used the other day by senior PML (N) stalwarts on the eleventh anniversary of Musharrafs coup, crossed all limits of decency. Although all of this happened under the aegis of his illustrious son Hamza Shahbaz, Mian Shahbaz Sharif did the right thing by apologizing to the prime minister for this shoddy and obnoxious behavior. However, the belligerent tone being adopted of late by the PML (N) could signal a perceptible change in its policy towards the PPP.
It is evident that time is running out for the government to set its house in order. Moves are afoot to reshuffle and reduce the size of the cabinet as well as to replace cronies in key jobs. Although it sounds too good to be true, it should be done sooner rather than later.
The Supreme Court in its wisdom will decide about the veracity of reports to de-notify members of the bench. However if the judges merely acted upon rumours, they should get to the bottom of it by exposing the source of the rumours. The whole episode betrays the ever-widening chasm between the executive and the judiciary. This does not auger well for the system!
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today.