In hearings this week the Supreme Court of Pakistan, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, ordered the disqualification from office of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, barring him from contesting elections for the next five years. The court order cut short Gilani’s hopes of presiding over the longest-serving civilian government in Pakistani history. Gilani’s immediate successor is uncertain, as several of his party’s candidates to replace him also face court charges. But the successor will likely be decided in a vote later this week.
The ouster of Pakistan’s prime minister adds another level of complexity to one of the most challenging U.S. bilateral relationships in the world. Pakistan is now several years into a process of significant political change and the events this week are part of a broader story of Pakistan’s internal political evolution. Even though it will be difficult, the United States must work with many different political players in Pakistan to achieve its goals.
Gilani’s disqualification reflects ongoing competition for power
The ouster of Prime Minister Gilani comes nearly four years after the dissolution of the military regime of former President Pervez Musharraf. The return to civilian-led democracy in early 2008 has resulted in the reemergence of multiple centers of political power in the country. For the past four years the coalition government led by the Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, opposition parties, courts, military leadership, and provincial (as opposed to national-level) leaders have challenged the limits of each other’s power, with no single institution or organization in a position to dominate all others.
This week’s disqualification order is the culmination of a multiyear contest between the judiciary and the elected government, as Chief Justice Chaudhry has pressed for the reopening of corruption charges against Pakistan president and PPP party leader Asif Ali Zardari. Insistence that Zardari holds constitutional immunity ultimately resulted in Gilani’s conviction for contempt of court in April.
Gilani initially received only a token sentence from the court and PPP control over the parliament allowed National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza to rule that Gilani’s conviction did not merit disqualification from office. But opposition parties in turn challenged that decision in the courts, resulting in this week’s move by the courts to finally remove Gilani. Thus far, the ruling party has suggested it will not directly challenge the move.
Gilani’s ouster brings new uncertainty to Pakistani politics but the move is unlikely to dramatically reorder the balance of political power in the short run. President Zardari remains out of the court’s immediate reach, and the PPP retains its control over the parliament. Nor is the court itself immune from challenges to its authority and legitimacy. Overshadowing the court’s order against Gilani are recent high-profile allegations against Chief Justice Chaudhry’s son, who was accused of accepting bribes from Islamabad property developer Malik Riaz, allegedly with the chief justice’s knowledge.
Opposition parties may yet force early elections before the PPP government’s term expires in February 2013. But the opposition is itself divided between the well-established PML-N party, which controls the Punjab provincial government; former cricket star Imran Khan’s PTI party, which boycotted the 2008 elections but now draws large crowds of young supporters with denunciations against government corruption; and a mix of minor Islamist parties.
The Pakistani military establishment also remains an active political player, but it has been a target of the courts and the political parties almost as much as it has been a partner. This prevents it from solidifying control over the system at the levels it enjoyed following the 1999 Musharraf coup.
The decentralized system of political power within Pakistan has forced negotiated coalition building. The government and opposition parties have in fact reached agreement on some key issues—notably the devolution of responsibilities and resources to provincial governments and procedures for bipartisan judicial and election official nominations.
The risk posed by this messy system, however, is the contentious way in which negotiations must be conducted and the many serious challenges facing the country that lack consensus.
Since Gilani’s disqualification by the Supreme Court was backdated to April, the government’s passage earlier this month of its budget for the upcoming fiscal year starting in July is now uncertain. Chronic energy shortages continue to spark violent protest around the country and cripple economic growth. And government debts and reliance on domestic borrowing have both risen, as large sectors of the economy go untaxed and government revenues stagnate.
How to respond to Pakistan’s increasingly decentralized civilian power structures
U.S.-Pakistan ties have sunk to new lows during the last year and a half in contentious disputes over the Afghanistan war and counterterrorism efforts. Although both countries have an interest cooperating in these and other areas, mutual mistrust and internal political divisions in both countries have complicated efforts to define the terms of a working relationship. And it’s not likely to get much better before elections in both countries in the coming year.
Critically for the United States, negotiations with Pakistan on Afghanistan remain stalled. This stalemate unfortunately seems likely to continue for months to come—and Pakistan’s internal political battles will further complicate U.S. efforts to reach an agreement with Pakistan on constructive ways forward on the outcome in Afghanistan, counterterrorism efforts, and other issues.
But these internal political battles also present an important opportunity for the United States and other countries to quietly encourage the emergence of more pluralism within Pakistan’s political system. If Pakistan’s next elections take place as scheduled in the next year, this will represent an important moment, as Pakistan will have had two consecutive democratic elections for the first time in its history.
While it may be possible for the United States to tilt the internal political balance on some issues, consensus agreements are likely to be far more politically sustainable within Pakistan than the unilateral decision of a single actor. This means the United States must be prepared for consistent and patient diplomatic engagement across the full spectrum of Pakistani political actors. Development assistance programs should continue working with a wide range of actors in Pakistan at the national, provincial, and local levels.
The United States should also anticipate multiple rounds of internal Pakistani deliberation on U.S. policy proposals, as has been the case so far in the dispute over the terms of Pakistani cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan.
A democratic system in which Pakistanis press their interests and define the rules of the game through political and legal negotiations rather than military coups or extrajudicial government ousters is in the interest of both the United States and Pakistan. And Pakistanis must ultimately assume responsibility for their country’s many internal challenges.
So as difficult and unpredictable as it may be, effective U.S. diplomacy with Pakistan will require understanding and working across multiple centers of political power for the foreseeable future.
Colin Cookman is a Policy Analyst and Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress .