Pakistan’s president was forced into a second day of crisis talks to find a new prime minister acceptable to his fractious coalition yesterday after the Supreme Court ousted the incumbent for contempt.
The country — facing a Taliban insurgency and the object of US wrath over havens for al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting the Americans in Afghanistan —- has been plunged into political chaos by Tuesday’s court ruling.
Yousuf Raza Gilani, who became prime minister following the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) election win in 2008, was dismissed after being convicted of contempt for refusing to ask Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.
He moved out of the prime minister’s house overnight, leaving Zardari to embark on intense horse-trading in order to set up a new executive and stave off early general elections.
Zardari chaired talks overnight with coalition leaders and was to meet PPP MPs at about 4pm, when officials had said he hoped to nominate a new prime minister.
Ahmed Mukhtar, minister for water and power, and textiles minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin, appear to have emerged as the front-runners.
“The next prime minister will be elected by the national assembly. He will be a member of parliament. He will be a nice person and loyal to the party,” Gilani’s lawyer and PPP member Aitzaz Ahsan told reporters yesterday.
He confirmed the new prime minister would immediately face court demands to write to the Swiss, which is why analysts say Zardari will only countenance a loyalist.
“We accept this verdict,” Ahsan said. “The prime minister has left the prime minister’s house, though we have reservations about this verdict.”
The US State Department expressed hope that Pakistan would resolve the crisis in accordance with the constitution.
In Pakistan, reactions were mixed, but editorial writers praised the PPP for accepting the verdict and calling for calm.
“Contrary to the claims by many, the ouster of the prime minister and his cabinet has not shaken the democratic system. Parliament is intact and a new leader of the house may soon be in place,” The News said.
It said the court had been right and urged Zardari to act quickly to find a cabinet capable of dealing with the huge problems facing ordinary Pakistanis— crushing power cuts, rioting, violence, inflation and insecurity.
However, the country’s oldest English daily, Dawn, criticized the court for its “extraordinary — and unfortunate — step,” calling it disruptive to nascent democracy.
“What is critical now is that elections are held, whether early or on time and as free and fair as possible, so that the final judgement can be left to the people’s court,” it wrote.
The liberal Express Tribune advised the court to show the same assertiveness toward Pakistan’s powerful military, repeatedly accused of human rights abuses.
Gilani’s disqualification was the culmination of a showdown between the judiciary led by a popular chief justice, and a weak, ineffective government that critics say has been politicized at best, or vendetta-driven at worst.
Zardari prevaricated for months on restoring the independent judiciary after the PPP won general elections in February 2008, only doing so in March 2009 to stave off a threatened opposition march on Islamabad.
In December 2009, the Supreme Court annulled a controversial amnesty that had allowed Zardari and his late wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, back into politics in exchange for a moratorium on corruption cases.