Feb 25, 2009

Sharifs disqualified, Punjab under governor rule

Pakistan's politics took a dramatic, but not so unexpected, turn on Wednesday when a Supreme Court verdict to declare Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif ineligible to contest elections or holding public offices brought thousands of opposition supporters on the streets in protest against the decision, and compelled the governing PPP's top leadership to put their heads together to draw the future strategy to meet the new challenge.
Within minutes of the apex court's short order, enraged members of Nawaz Sharif's PML-N in various cities of the Punjab took to the street, burning tires and police kiosks, and pulling down banners and posters of President Asif Zardari and other PPP leaders.
The government played it rather intelligently and instead of using the police force to disperse the protesters, allowed the PML-N activists to vent their anger.
As a result the violence witnessed in Lahore, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi and many other parts of the Punjab during the day remained somewhat contained.
But across the political landscape the atmosphere of confrontation appeared the obvious thing, and made it quite clear that the battle-lines between the PPP-led government and the opposition led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have been clearly drawn.
And if there were any doubts, they were soon cleared by the PML-N chief by his frank, candid, and quite terse remarks about the Supreme Court judges, and more so about President Zardari.
‘It’s not a judicial decision, but an edict’, Nawaz Sharif said, alleging that the instructions for such a move had directly come from the President. ‘It amounts to stabbing me in the back’.
The verdict also brought to the fore Nawaz Sharif's acrimonious politics of yesteryears as he directly targeted Asif Zardari and his past actions, and talked about the ‘plundered money’ being kept in the Swiss bank accounts.
Perhaps the most personal of the attacks was when he accused Mr. Zardari of using the Supreme Court to do away with the condition of graduation for standing in the elections as, according to Mr. Sharif, ‘Asif Zardari does not hold a university degree’.
Mr. Sharif also alleged that weeks before the Supreme Court's verdict Mr. Zardari offered a ‘deal’ in the form of a favourable court decision if they agreed to an extension given to Chief Justice Dogar.
Information Minsiter Sherry Rehman immediately rubbished the claim, calling it an ‘absolutely outrageous allegation’. She called for looking at the court's decision dispassionately, while admitting that the verdict has created a problem for the government in its efforts for reconciliation.
So surprising was the court's decision that even some of the government's known allies were either reluctant to comment on it or described it as a bad omen for democracy.
Senior members of Awami National Party were of the view that rather than the courts such matters be left for the politicians to decide, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman of Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) thought it may unnecessarily vitiate the political atmosphere in the country.
On the other side, and even when the top PPP leadership was evolve a strategy to deal wit the situation, President Zardari's pointman in the Punjab, Governor Salman Taseer was on the move, apparently eager to take on the PML-N leadership.
Even before the release of the detailed verdict, the governor exercised his authority under Article 129 of the Constitution to take charge of the province as its chief executive.
And the moment the federal government got the air that the PML-N leadership was planning to convene the Punjab assembly session, President Zardari stepped in to impose Governor's Rule for two months.
Even that didn't deter a defiant PML-N whose elected members gathered in huge numbers in the Punjab Assembly chamber for a ‘requisitioned session’, but it was later described by the government, as an unauthorised and illegal session.
As pointed out by many political observers, now there were all indications that in the days to come the political temperature was bound to rise, with strong possibility of the confrontation taking an ugly form, at least in the Punjab.
Pakistan's political history is littered with incidents of alliances falling apart and political friends turning into foes. However, analysts say never before such a formidable coalition formed soon after the 2008 general elections not only ended within a period of a few months, but in less than a year's its two major parties are on warpath, vowing to use all constitutional or unconstitutional methods to undermine, or possibly eliminate each other.

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