Allies wrong-footed by PPP’s U-turn

September 19, 2012


Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, President of Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid talks to media representatives at the Supreme Court. – Photo by INP

ISLAMABAD, Sept 18: The meeting with the government coalition partners became tense on Monday night when President Asif Ali Zardari broke the news that he had decided to write the letter to the Swiss authorities, withdrawing the previous letter sent by former attorney general Malik Mohammad Qayyum.

A leading member of a coalition party sprung up to ask why he and others had been encouraged to attack the judiciary verbally if the president was going to capitulate on an issue he had initially taken a strong stand on.

This was not a lone voice; some other members of allied parties also spoke up to protest.

The president had been expecting this, especially from the ANP which had been vocal in its criticism of the judiciary. He immediately told his legal eagle, Farooq H. Naek, the Law Minister, to brief the participants of the meeting over the ‘about-turn’.

A confident and smiling Mr Naek then briefed the participants. He explained how a change of stance would help end the much talked about clash of executive and judiciary in the country, members of the ruling party who were present at the meeting told Dawn.

“For a moment, we too couldn’t believe our ears when President Zardari said that he had decided to accept the court orders.

However, Mr Naek explained how the change in policy would result in a win-win situation for the ruling coalition,” said a participant of the meeting.

An about-turn it is – but on the face of it and for the time being, feel some observers. This is why, they argue, the president, who had along with his son and chairman of the PPP, declared that writing a letter would be akin to a trial of the grave of Benazir Bhutto, has now agreed to this.

They explain that it is at best a tactic that the party has employed to buy time.

A senior PPP leader, on the basis of anonymity, claimed that the PPP by accepting the court ruling had shifted the focus of the case – the content of the letter, and not the prime minister and his alleged contempt of the court, will be in the eye of the storm.

And as the draft is discussed and finalised the party will get some time.

Second, it will be Law Minister Farooq H. Naek, and not Prime Minister Raja Parvez Ashraf who will now face the apex court legally speaking; as the prime minister has authorised Mr Naek to withdraw the Qayyum letter. If there is a delay or another confrontation, it will not involve the prime minister and his alleged contempt, says the party member. The law minister will face the brunt.

This is why PPP leaders are not willing to concede that this change of stance means an about-turn or defeat.

A sitting federal minister close to President Zardari said: “Don’t jump to conclusion – the legal niceties are yet to be decided.”

This is also why PPP leaders are also not willing to agree that by changing his mind the president has not been fair to former prime minister Gilani who not only lost the prime ministership but also sacrificed his political career by facing disqualification.

In fact, there are reports that many cabinet members close to Mr Gilani are unhappy that this change of heart did not come sooner and saved the man from Multan.

However, a federal minister dismisses this charge by arguing that earlier the court was not willing to make any concessions. The minister said: “We have only reciprocated the apex court’s positive gestures, as the five-member bench has now assured the government that the office of the president will remain protected.” Earlier, the SC appeared less amenable to a compromise, the minister said.

In addition, the minister explained that President Zardari was never put on trial by the Swiss courts. The case never moved beyond the investigation level.

Another federal minister told Dawn that the government had taken the new position after doing its home work. “If we let this issue hang fire, a letter could have been written by the caretaker set-up and that could have proved more damaging. The party realised that it was better to write it ourselves and in our own way,” said the minister.

Some legal experts also feel that the president has finally won this round.

Dr Khalid Ranjha, a former law minister, called it a ‘great political victory’ for President Zardari.

At the next hearing, the law minister may ask for more time, arguing that he needs to study the letter written by former attorney general Qayyum, and that he had requested the Swiss authorities for a copy, Mr Ranjha remarked.

He added that the government could simply write a letter to the Swiss authorities which said that Pakistan had decided to withdraw its earlier correspondence and that no further action could be taken against the accused because he is the head of the state at the moment.

For Salman Akram Raja, another Supreme Court lawyer and regular commentator on court proceedings, said on the face of it, the government had taken a U-turn.

Be he added that it was a major development that would help defuse the ongoing executive-judiciary tussle in the country.