Premier 'in contempt' as Pakistan prepares for early poll

Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued a contempt notice to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Monday, ordering him to appear before the court over failure to prosecute government officials in long-running corruption cases.

The country’s embattled government is preparing to call early elections in an attempt to find a way out of the political crisis that has paralysed the country, as a confidence vote in Parliament and critical court cases loom on Monday.

The move by the court, however, could throw the country even deeper into crisis.

“In these circumstances, we are left with no option, as a first step, to issue a show cause notice,” the notice issued by the seven-member bench stated.

“The prime minister should appear personally in court on January 19.”

At war with the courts, the opposition and the military establishment, President Asif Zardari’s administration has agreed to an opposition demand to hold early national polls, but only after the separate ballot takes place in March to the Senate, the upper house of Parliament, according to members of the ruling coalition and its advisers.

If the political parties cannot find a way out of the crisis, the threat of a coup still hangs over the country, analysts warn. Meanwhile, the sectarian violence that has been simmering across the country erupted again in a fresh bomb attack on Pakistan’s Shia minority. Eighteen people were killed when a bomb ripped through a Shia religious procession in the central city of Khanpur.

“There is no other option for the government to come out of the current crisis without elections,” said an adviser to the leadership of Zardari’s ruling Pakistan Peoples party.
“It is in the interests of the PPP to reach an agreement with [opposition leader] Nawaz [Sharif].”

Shaky coalition
The PPP rules with three other major coalition partners, but the alliance is looking shaky, with two of the parties, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, distancing themselves from the government.

The government is willing to concede elections in the autumn, but Sharif is believed to be pushing for an even earlier date. In order to gain Sharif’s help in continuing the government, Zardari may need to accept Sharif’s demand.

A senior member of the coalition said they had so far agreed internally only to a general election to be held in October. That would be just a few months before the February 2013 date when Parliament would complete its five-year term and elections would have to take place anyway.

An early election should also placate the courts and the military. A supposedly neutral caretaker government would have to be installed to oversee a three-month electioneering period.

Another coalition member said: “It is 100% certain that there will be elections in 2012. The only solution is elections. It doesn’t matter whether they are held in June or October.”

The parliamentary resolution before Parliament on Monday was tabled by the coalition itself, asking for support not for the prime minister or even the government, but for democracy. That makes it difficult for the opposition to vote against it.

Memogate scandal
But the PPP’s troubles in Parliament are only one of the fronts in its battle for survival. The courts and the military are both manoeuvring aggressively against the party’s leaders, with two explosive cases coming up for hearing on Monday.

Both the so-called memogate scandal, and a Supreme Court hearing against the legal amnesty that protects Zardari, will be heard. In the amnesty case before the Supreme Court, the judges have threatened to disqualify the prime minister.

The star witness in the memogate case, US businessman Mansoor Ijaz, is due to testify in a case that could lead to treason charges against key Zardari aide and former Washington ambassador Husain Haqqani. Haqqani is accused of trying to conspire with the US against Pakistan’s armed forces through a written “memo” in May last year, allegations that reach up to the president himself.

The government is in an open bitter row with the army over memogate case, in which the military’s spymaster has already told the court in a written affidavit that he believes Ijaz’s allegations. Last week, the prime minister and the chief of the army, General Ashfaq Kayani, traded rebukes over the military’s court affidavits, with Gilani calling them “unconstitutional and illegal”. In a meeting with Zardari over the weekend, a furious Kayani reportedly demanded that Gilani retract his remarks and apologise.

On Sunday Gilani came out fighting, making clear he would not bow to the military’s demands.

“According to the Constitution, the prime minister, the ministers, the ministers of state, are all answerable only to the Parliament. I am not answerable to any individual,” Gilani told reporters in the central city of Vehari.—

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