ISLAMABAD, June 19: Finally, the government was sent packing. Tuesday turned into reality the fears of many who had been predicting for weeks, months and years that this time around the government would be sent home through an order of the higher judiciary.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday declared Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani disqualified from holding a seat in the parliament from the date of his conviction on April 26 by a seven-member bench for contempt of court.
Though the court had then desisted from categorically disqualifying him, on Tuesday a three-member bench did so; the latter was hearing the petitions against the National Assembly speaker’s ruling in which she declared that Mr Gilani was not disqualified despite his conviction for contempt of court.
By doing so, the SC has also robbed the former prime minister of claiming credit of being the ‘longest serving prime minister’. Liaquat Ali Khan’s record stays intact now.
A quiet farewell
Hours after the pronouncement of the short order, the Election Commission de-notified Mr Gilani as member of the National Assembly and declared his seat vacant.
There were reports that by night he had moved out of the official residence, driving into the darkness in a car that no longer carried the Pakistani flag.
Before moving out, he chaired an informal meeting of his erstwhile cabinet that concluded shortly after the notification by the EC. Members of his cabinet are also believed to have returned the protocols.
As usual opinion over the judgment was divided. Politician and lawyer S.M. Zafar, who is a member of the PML-Q, said the judgment was expected as the former prime minister had defied the orders of the apex court on a number of occasions.
However, others did not agree with him.
Barrister Fawad Chaudhry, a former adviser to the former prime minister, said the decision had put a question mark on various judicial appointments made in the recent days. He was of the opinion that it would take about four days to elect a new prime minister and it was a big question as to who would fill the gap.
He also wondered how a three-member bench had interpreted the judgment of a seven-member bench.
The order which came around four in the afternoon did not take many people by surprise – including the government.
Cabinet members and PPP leaders had said in background discussions that they had been prepared for this ‘worst case scenario’. The former prime minister too had read the writing on the wall – this was one reason he had cancelled his trip to Brazil and sent Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar instead. However, no one had expected that the disqualification would be applied retrospectively.
Some legal experts believe that this move by the court will open a new Pandora’s Box as it will put a question mark on the legality of the actions and orders of the prime minister and his cabinet after Mr Gilani’s conviction on April 26. One of them pointed out that this could even make the federal budget for the next financial year controversial.
What next for the PPP
Nonetheless, most observers and legal experts were pre-occupied on Tuesday with the most pressing legal crisis – the constitutional limbo created by the SC order. The country lacked a chief executive till the PPP and its allies managed to nominate and elect a new prime minister.
“There is a void and a constitutional crisis in the country right now and the only way out is by electing a new prime minister,” said S.M. Zafar. This issue kept the PPP and the rest of the government busy on Tuesday. The party leadership was already in a huddle when the court ruling came and it remained in consultations till late at night.
However, statements by its leadership made it clear that the party was not going to opt for confrontation. Instead it appeared as if the PPP’s first choice would be to select a new prime minister and keep going on for as long as possible. Some felt that an announcement for fresh elections was also a possibility.
All in a day at the court
At the conclusion of arguments for and against the petitions challenging the National Assembly speaker’s ruling on the prime minister’s disqualification filed by Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leaders, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf chief Imran Khan and others, a three-judge bench of the apex court headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry said the court would announce the judgment at 3pm.
In its short order pronounced in the packed courtroom at about 4pm, it was announced that on April 26 a seven-member bench had found Mr Gilani guilty of contempt of court and had sentenced him till the rising of the court – about 37 seconds.
The court on Tuesday felt that as the government had not filed an appeal against the conviction it had accepted it. “Since no appeal was filed against this judgment, the conviction has attained finality. Therefore, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani has become disqualified from being a member of parliament… from … 26.04.2012… he has also ceased to be Prime Minister with effect from the said date and the office of the Prime Minister of Pakistan… will be deemed to be vacant accordingly,” the order said.
It said the Election Commission was required to issue a notification of disqualification of Mr Gilani from April 26 and the President was required to take necessary steps to ensure continuation of the democratic process through parliamentary system of government in the country.
The order also explained why it did not consider the speaker’s ruling sufficient. It said the speaker’s ruling was not covered by the definition of parliamentary proceedings. Therefore, it said, the court was not debarred from inquiring into the order passed by the speaker on May 25.
Based on the April conviction of the prime minister, the speaker had ruled that the prime minister was not disqualified in her opinion.
The order was passed in a packed courtroom and the premises of the SC were overrun by lawyers, activists and journalists on the day. Once the order was passed, the charged lawyers chanted slogans in favour of the judiciary and the activists against it.
Prime minister’s counsel Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan and Attorney General Irfan Qadir were not present in the courtroom when the order was pronounced.
Earlier during the proceedings, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry said there was no confrontation between institutions. “We respect the parliament and are here to protect its dignity,” he remarked.
Justice Khilji Arif Hussain also said the Supreme Court had no reason for clash with institutions, adding that its job was to prevent actions repugnant to the Constitution and the law.
During the proceedings, the judges had been warned by the attorney general that the parliament could strike down an adverse decision given by the court against the speaker’s ruling.
“We will do our job and let the parliament do its work,” the chief justice responded.