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The government that wouldn’t fall

Published May 06, 2012 12:15am

WITH all the paper and crayons the PML-N carried to parliament the past week, you’d think a Leaguer or two could have spared some time to write a little letter.

Dear Madam Speaker, The PML-N believes that a question has arisen that Yousuf Raza Gilani stands disqualified as a member of parliament under Article 63(1)(g) of the constitution for bringing the judiciary into ridicule as stated by the Supreme Court in its conviction of Mr Gilani for contempt of court on Thursday, April 26, 2012.

Accordingly, under Article 63(2) of the constitution it is required of you as Speaker of the National Assembly to forward the question of Mr Gilani’s disqualification to the Election Commission of Pakistan for a final decision.

With kind regards, The PML-N.

A letter short enough to be written with a crayon on the back of a protest placard and handed over to the Speaker during one of the PML-N’s noisy protests on the floor of the National Assembly.

A letter that would have triggered the only constitutional process for declaring Gilani disqualified.

But in seven days of protests until the Assembly session was prorogued Friday, the N-League avoided the legal route and demanded Gilani’s resignation instead.

Behind that choice lies a political calculation.

Take the legal route and the N-League risks its anti-PPP message being buried under an avalanche of legalese. The technicalities of Article 63 — can the Speaker decide no question of disqualification has arisen? If so, is there any appeal against the Speaker’s decision? Wouldn’t the matter ultimately return to the Supreme Court for an inconclusive answer? — are confounding.

Better a simpler message that the electorate can understand: the prime minister is a convict, his boss is corrupt, the Supreme Court tried to do the right thing; ergo, the prime minister should resign.

However, catchy as the slogans may be and fun as charged-up rallies will be, they also betray the opposition’s impotence.

This was originally a fight between the PPP and the SC; the PML-N are Johnny-come-latelies. Once the court baulked at pulling the trigger, the N-League’s ability to force the very outcome the court wasn’t willing to force was always going to be limited.

The reality is that the fundamentals that have been in place since 2009 have not changed. And until those system fundamentals change, regime change isn’t going to happen.

Think of it this way. At the centre is the PPP, surviving through a combination of unexpected political acumen — Zardari the political maestro, anyone? Gilani the heroic defender? — and luck.

The luck is that surrounding the PPP, as with every other civilian government, are three traditional rivals — the political opposition, the judiciary and the army — who can agree that they don’t like the PPP but can’t quite bring themselves to work in concert to attain the desired outcome.

For reasons of history and politics and systems, to engineer the downfall of a government you need at least two of the three forces opposing the government to align. PPP conspiracy theories aside, this time that combination just refuses to emerge.

With memogate there was, briefly, an almost perfect alignment. The army raised the alarm over Haqqani’s alleged antics, Sharif petitioned the court to take notice, the court swung into action, drawing out the blunt affidavits from the army chief and DG ISI and just like that, everyone seemed poised to plunge the knife into the PPP.

But then Sharif pulled back. He realised that he’d been lured into a trap to make an army vs PPP fight look like a PPP vs everyone scrap. Next, the army relented when the PPP refused to budge and another chapter in their frenemy relationship had been inked.

The court was the one which had formally gone the furthest, setting up a high-powered commission to investigate the silliness that was Mansoor Ijaz and his claims, so it’s taken the longest to extract itself from a battle that its fleeting allies have long since abandoned.

For all their dislike of the PPP, the problem is that the presumptive allies are also suspicious of each other. Nothing new there but it tends to get forgotten each time a political crisis erupts.

Nawaz doesn’t like the army, the army doesn’t trust Nawaz, neither would want a judiciary that would make life difficult for them if they have to run the show and the judiciary knows that when push comes to shove, it’s usually the judiciary that’s trampled underfoot.

Unwilling to trust one another as they close in on their prey, the would-be troika of opponents has also encountered unexpected canniness from its prey.

For one, Zardari’s willingness to share the spoils tends to sow confusion in the enemies’ ranks.

The army doesn’t like him and thinks he presides over a monumentally corrupt and incompetent government. But then he gives them whatever they want: pay raises, budget hikes, foreign and national security policies and even unprecedented extensions.

With the court, he allowed the 19th Amendment, giving them the judges they want, and doesn’t resort to unleashing Babar Awan or Irfan Qadir types unless he’s personally threatened.

With the opposition, he lets them snipe and complain, snarl and yelp as much as they like and for the most part doesn’t interfere in their way of doing things. There’s enough for everyone to share, is Zardari’s message.

And when things heat up, as they invariably do, the PPP has found unexpected heroes. Gilani defiantly stood up to the army over memogate and threw himself in the court’s way as it tried to get the Swiss letter written, confusing and confounding the PPP’s opponents.

Chtuzpah, luck and wiles — it’s been a winning formula for the PPP so far. And nothing the PML-N can do at this stage looks set to upset that winning formula.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

twitter: @cyalm