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Has sleaze ruling left Pakistan more polarised?

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

Pakistan President Zardari
President Zardari is protected by presidential immunity

The Pakistani Supreme Court's decision last week to strike down an amnesty law for politicians has created more questions than it has answered.

The decision has led to the reopening of corruption cases against hundreds of people, including the country's President, Asif Zardari, and some top federal and provincial ministers.

President Zardari is covered by constitutional immunity and cannot be proceeded against as long as he is president, but cases against the ministers can be reopened immediately.

Many in Pakistan have hailed the decision as a major step towards strengthening the rule of law in the country.

But many more read in it a familiar pattern by which the country's security establishment has repeatedly undermined civilian governments, especially those led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which is now in power.

Defiant stance

The government has avoided an open confrontation with the court, but has adopted a defiant stance.

President Zardari has refused to step down, and no member of the cabinet has been asked to resign, though they say they will abide by the court's ruling and face charges brought against them.

Former Pakistani President Perviez Musharraf
The amnesty law was brought in by former President Pervez Musharraf

The main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has so far resisted the temptation to start a full-blown movement against the government, presumably because he fears that this will benefit the military, not his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party.

But while the government may survive this latest setback, it has been sufficiently weakened to focus on the two core issues the country faces; war against militants and an ailing economy.

For the Western powers, such uncertainty does not bode well.

These powers decided to back a democratic government in Pakistan when the former military regime of General Pervez Musharraf failed to counter the expanding influence of Taliban militants.

Analysts say powers such as the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia underwrote a public amnesty which would enable popular politicians such as Benazir Bhutto to return to the country and counter the Taliban.

The result was the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), a law which Ms Bhutto negotiated with former military ruler General Musharraf in 2007 to write off cases against her and members of her party which she said were "politically motivated".

But when the legal team of the former president drafted the law, they expanded its scope to bring several Musharraf allies into its orbit.

Recently, more than 8,000 people - among them politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen - were found to have benefitted from the law.

But the entire debate in the week-long hearings at the Supreme Court revolved around the PPP leaders, notably President Zardari, and they are the ones who appear to be the most directly affected.

Ganging up?

This has led many analysts to question the validity of the original cases of corruption against the PPP leaders in the first place.

They point out that all these cases were instituted to justify the premature ousting of Bhutto's second government in 1997.

The cases were lodged by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had then replaced Bhutto.

Benazir Bhutto
Many suspect rogue security elements over Bhutto's 2007 assassination

None of the accused leaders were ever convicted in those cases, although President Zardari spent eight years in jail and Bhutto herself lived in self-exile in Dubai.

Many ask what difference will the courts or the investigating agencies make now if the cases are reopened.

There are also questions over the timing and the overall context of the decision.

Many in Sindh province, the stronghold of PPP, believe it is yet another example of the military and the top judiciary ganging up to oust Sindhi politicians from power.

They suspect that the December 2007 assassination of Ms Bhutto at an election rally was the work of some rogue elements within the security establishment to deprive the PPP of effective leadership.

The party still won the February 2008 election, and during the first year of its rule it created the conditions for a successful military operation against the militants in Swat region.

But President Zardari's offer of a no-first-use of nuclear weapons pact with India, his assertion that India posed no threat to Pakistan, and his attempts to bring the military's ISI intelligence service under civilian control were initiatives that many believe crossed the red line into a sphere which the military considers to be its exclusive domain.

Secessionists

The military was also perturbed over the recent American aid package to Pakistan which stressed the supremacy of civilian rule over the military as one of its core conditions.

It publicly opposed the package.

The Supreme Court's verdict against the NRO, and its PPP-centric connotations have led many to point out why the court continues to defer other, more fundamental cases of institutional corruption.

These include a case in which the ISI allegedly distributed funds to raise a political front against the PPP in 1988. The case has been pending at the Supreme Court since 1999.

There have also been cases of major loan write-offs in favour of political allies of the former military rulers, such as General Musharraf and General Ziaul Haq.

In addition to these questions over the impartiality of the top judiciary, there is also a growing perception that the weakening of the PPP government may strengthen secessionist forces in Sindh province.

Many say the Supreme Court verdict has left the country more polarised than before.



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