All politics is local, as the political scientists warn us. Going by this dictum, the most important political implication of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s conviction will be whether the candidates of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) can convince voters in their constituencies that the court verdicts against its main leaders do not matter to them. If and when the next election comes, will the conviction be a factor in determining the success or failure of the PPP?
The media and some sections of the commentariat are betting that this – along with some other factors – will deal a severe blow to the party’s electoral fortunes. The PPP would like to believe that Gilani’s loyalty to President Asif Ali Zardari at the cost of his own job will go down well with the cultural sentiments of its mainly rural voters who value personal bonds above all else.
The party will also try to play the victim and discrimination cards: the judiciary has always victimised the PPP (remember death sentence handed down to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto!); and politically elected leaders from less empowered regions like Sindh and southern Punjab have always been given a raw deal compared to those belonging to central Punjab. The party must be hoping that the combined effect of these two factors may neutralise, if not override, any real or perceived negative political implications of the verdict against Gilani.
But election is still some way away. Before that the government would want to prolong the process of Gilani's disqualification as much as it possibly can. This will be attempted through legal means – involving appeals and reviews against the conviction – and political tactics like allowing the conviction to become ineffective at the table of the National Assembly speaker who has the discretion to decide whether or not there is sufficient ground for a member of the National Assembly to be disqualified. Speaker Fahmida Mirza, being a PPP loyalist, can try as much as she can to get Gilani off the hook.
While this will trigger another round of petitions and court proceedings, it also has the potential to stall, if not altogether stop, the process. As and when the government, the party and the parliament resort to such a measure, it will only reaffirm the PPP’s strategy of biding time in the war of attrition it is engaging in with, mainly, the courts and the opposition. Whether at the end of it all, the party will still have more political energy left than its rivals and competitors will start becoming apparent in the coming days and will be visible in the intensity and frequency of its response to the verdict through public protests.
The opposition, both within the Parliament and outside of it, will now try to reiterate, as vigorously and publicly as it possibly can, the moral point it has been making since long against the government and the PPP in general and Gilani and Zardari in particular. How long can the government withstand such moral onslaught in the streets, in the media and in the parliament will determine when the new election is called. As long as the government can counter moral high ground possessed by the opposition with parliamentary numbers, the election can wait until they become due and one prime minister can replace another if there is no other legal and political option but to let Gilani bow out.
But morality can win sooner than the government may like and some coalition partners of the PPP, collectively or individually, may realise that the pangs of the conscience have become too much for them to continue supporting ‘corrupt’ and ‘contemptuous’ Gilani and Zardari any more. Such potential and possible desertions could hasten the demise of the government and the advent of the new election. So far, apparently, the allies are squarely behind the PPP and the government. How long that will be the case is difficult to say given that there are so many issues that divided the coalition partners and one or more of them could use one or more of these issues to break ranks with the PPP to push it to the corner.
In any case, a bad political situation is bound to turn ugly – both within the courts and the parliament as well as in the streets. How much of this goes in the government’s favour is the only factor that will determine whether the government completes its constitutional term or not. Otherwise, it will be a fight to a finish brought earlier, and PPP seems ready to take it on the chin.