Pakistan's Prime Ministerial Crisis: Gilani's Ouster and its Implications
June 26, 2012
A Supreme Court ruling on June 19 marked the end of Yousaf Raza Gilani’s controversial tenure as Pakistan’s prime minister, launching the country into yet another period of political uncertainty. Gilani was just a few days short of becoming Pakistan’s longest-serving civilian leader—an impressive feat in a country ruled by military dictatorships for the majority of its history. His dismissal only adds to the troubles of a country with a rapidly deteriorating domestic situation. Gilani’s dismissal also will likely stall critical discussions between Pakistan and the United States, fueling further U.S. frustrations.
Q1: What events led to the dismissal of Prime Minister Gilani?
A1: President Asif Ali Zardari, cochairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has battled allegations of corruption throughout his political tenure. Pakistan’s chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, has focused relentlessly on these allegations, issuing an order to the Pakistani government to reopen review of the claims against Zardari in December 2009. Gilani, a PPP stalwart, was ordered to implement the ruling and ask Swiss authorities to reopen cases of graft against the president, but he failed in the view of the court to do so. As a result, he was found guilty of contempt of court on April 26. Although many called for Prime Minister Gilani to resign following the court’s contempt ruling, his dismissal was blocked by the Speaker of the National Assembly and fellow PPP member Fehmida Mirza; on May 24, she claimed that the charges against Gilani did not merit his disqualification from the National Assembly and, by extension, his position as prime minister. Members of opposition parties—amongst them, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) respectively—filed petitions against Speaker Mirza’s ruling, which led to a reopening of the issue of Gilani’s legitimacy.
On June 19, the Supreme Court concluded its hearings and nullified Mirza’s ruling, disqualifying Gilani from his post as prime minister, retrospectively effective April 26.
Q2: What does the prime minister’s dismissal mean for Pakistan?
A2: As a result of the ruling against Gilani, the Pakistani government faces yet another major challenge, in addition to its economic woes and domestic security situation. Since the Supreme Court ruling voids nearly two months of Gilani’s tenure, there are doubts as to the constitutional validity of executive orders issued by the former prime minister and his cabinet, including the passing of the federal budget. Zardari recently issued an executive ordinance to protect any decisions made by Gilani in the period under question, but it remains to be seen whether this edict will withstand challenge.
The PPP’s political capital was already declining as the result of a series of scandals, including events surrounding the resignation of former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani. The dismissal of Gilani, one of its highest-ranking members, and the looming threat of further action against Zardari has rendered the party all but powerless within the political system. Shortly after Zardari nominated a fellow party member, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, as Gilani’s replacement, a warrant was issued for Shahabuddin’s arrest by an antinarcotics court, forcing the PPP to back its second-choice candidate instead. On Friday, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, a less controversial PPP member, was elected to serve as prime minister in an extraordinary session of the parliament.
President Zardari has announced that general elections will take place as scheduled in February 2013. Opposition parties such as the PML-N and PTI are calling instead for an early round of elections and an end to Zardari’s presidency, moving quickly to further diminish the PPP leadership while it is at its most vulnerable.
In the unlikely scenario that the PPP is able to retain its rule in Pakistan, it will face an emboldened judiciary, backed by a significant portion of the population. Chief Justice Chaudhry has been criticized for engaging in a political tug-of-war with the PPP, and the future may hold further tussles between the government and the judiciary. Not to be forgotten, the Pakistani army will also be a thorn in the side of a continued PPP government; Gilani’s famous declaration that the army would not be allowed to function as “a state within a state” had angered many within the military establishment, which will likely maintain its tenuous relationship with the PPP.
More likely, the next Pakistani government will be borne of a PPP defeat. A new ruling coalition at the helm of the country would likely bring about significant changes to the country’s principal policies.
With Zardari out of the Aiwan-e-Sadr—Islamabad’s equivalent of the White House—the new Pakistani government will likely try to assert civil leadership over key elements of the government, particularly the army and judiciary. Whether such a feat can actually be accomplished by the government remains to be seen. The army may at least have a more positive working relationship with a new government, while the judiciary will be expected to continue its upward power trajectory, keeping a close check on influential figures within the country.
Q3: What implications does the prime minister’s dismissal have for the United States?
A3: In the near term, this crisis is unlikely to detract significantly from Pakistani counterterrorism efforts in the region, an issue of vital importance to the United States. The Pakistani military has been working to address the security threat posed by militants without much government involvement, and the premiership crisis does not affect operations on the counterterrorism front.
However, as Pakistan deals with its political crisis, discussions with the United States over the issue of reopening NATO supply routes through Pakistan and tackling the Haqqani network will likely become a secondary priority. Even with the appointment of Prime Minister Ashraf, it is unlikely that there will be much of a change in the rhetoric and actions of the Pakistani government, especially as the PPP scrambles to cobble together a campaign strategy for February 2013. While the United States will likely be forced to accept a lack of progress on issues in the region in the short term, it must rapidly prepare for the next coalition of Pakistani parties to rule the country.
Wisely, the United States has thus far kept a low profile as events have unfolded in Pakistan, not declaring too loudly in favor of one side or another. In this situation, continuing to work through established back channels of diplomacy presents the United States with a better chance to build a working relationship with whomever next sits at the helm of the Pakistani government than do public statements or posturing. Of note, a post-PPP government in Pakistan will likely result in a shift even further away from a security-focused relationship with the United States, allowing both countries some space to reconfigure what has been a largely transactional alliance.
The United States has a checkered record of supporting civilian leadership in Pakistan, with a historic preference for dealing directly with the powerful military establishment. The U.S. government now has the opportunity to reframe its relationship with Pakistan by maintaining an open channel of communication with the Pakistani government regarding a variety of issues, by working through the civilian leadership rather than through a direct channel with the military. How the United States manages its relationship with the civil and military institutions at this time of transition will factor significantly into what kind of an alliance it builds with a new Pakistani government in 2013.
Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Hijab Shah is a research assistant with the CSIS Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.