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Pakistani prime minister buys time in Supreme Court conflict

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has given Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf three weeks to resolve a standoff between the judiciary and the government and reopen corruption cases againstPresident Asif Ali Zardari.

The current government has already lost one prime minister. Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani was ousted in June for refusing to write a letter to Swiss authorities, effectively reopening the corruption case. Newly appointed Prime Minister Ashraf was asked to do the same thing, but refused as well. If he does not comply with the courts, the country risks losing yet another prime minister.

The delay in any ruling on the matter adds three weeks to the issue that has already lasted more than two and half years. And analysts say it is eroding the legitimacy of the independent Supreme Court, something Pakistan prides itself on, and is threatening rule of law.

“People are getting sick and tired of this deadlock. There is rule of law on one side, and the government on the other. This case is becoming an unwanted guest in the minds of everyone,” says Fahd Husain, a noted columnist and a news show host.

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The motive behind the court’s decisions to push for the reopening of the conviction case has divided observers. Some accuse the court of deliberately undermining the democratically electedPakistan People’s Party (PPP). Others say that the court is following through on its constitutional responsibility. Most, however, think the tussle indicates personal vendettas rather than principled stances.

The case against Mr. Zardari dates back to the 1990s, when he was accused of taking kickbacks for government contracts, but his party, the ruling PPP, maintains that the cases were politically motivated.

In 2007, a deal between former President Perrez Musharraf and the wife of Zardari, Benazir Bhutto, reportedly led to the dropping of all accusations in a presidential ordinance. But the law was repealed by the judiciary in December 2009, and the cases were reopened.

Battle of egos

Mehreen Zahra Malik, editor and columnist at The News, a daily English paper, says that people are starting to see this as just a battle of egos now.

“With such [little] time left for the government to complete its tenure, why cannot the judiciary just wait for the people to vote this government out?” Ms. Malik says.

But she says that the judiciary sees this deadlock differently.

“The court thinks that if it can make the most powerful man, the president of the country, bend to law, Pakistan will establish itself as a country where rule of law prevails. But this top-to-bottom approach is weakening rule of law, because there are so many other issues, like energy crisis, militancy, etc., in Pakistan that need to be addressed which affect common people, and they are being ignored, leading to public disillusionment,” Malik says.

On the other hand, legal experts feel that the decision to give more time to Ashraf was a reasonable one. “The judiciary had boxed itself in a corner,” says Feisal Naqvi, a lawyer at the Supreme Court, who regularly writes for different newspapers. “The court has to have a spotless reputation, which it does not anymore.”

Mr. Naqvi says that the current deadlock between the two institutions in the country has been skillfully played to the advantage of the government.

If another prime minister is sent home, it could help the PPP-led government in the coming elections. “If the judiciary regularly keeps dismissing prime ministers, it can lose some of its own legitimacy,” he says.

“In any situation when two entities are fighting with each other, everyone thinks both are to be blamed for the clash and that is what is happening now,” Naqvi adds.

Fresh elections?

General elections are scheduled for February, when the current government’s tenure ends.

But Mr. Husain says by giving more time to the prime minister today, the Supreme Court is looking for some sign from the government for early elections.

“The court is not going to give up on the letter but has given up on this government to write the letter. In the coming days, if we do not see any headway toward a consensus being built on a caretaker government by political parties, this prime minister may just have to go home, too,” Husain warns.

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