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    South Asia
     Jan 17, 2013


Arrest order piles pressure on Zardari
By Syed Fazl-e-Haider

KARACHI - Pakistan was plunged into political turmoil on Tuesday following the Supreme Court's decision to order the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who took over only last June, for alleged corruption. His predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gilani, was forced to leave office due to a conviction by same court on contempt charges.

The timing of the court's move puts added pressure on Ashraf's government, whose resignation is being demanded by Pakistani-Canadian cleric-professor Tahirul Qadri, who is leading tens of thousands in a march on the capital. The marchers are also calling for electoral reforms before general elections to be held before May 17.

The vote would be overseen by an interim caretaker administration that is supposed to be neutral, but Qadri is demanding that the

 
army have a say in the composition of the interim administration and that the caretaker government purge the political system, disbarring "criminal" politicians.

Reeling from the twin fronts, President Asif Ali Zardari is said to be mulling various options, including an in-house change of leadership.

The court has given authorities 24 hours to arrest Ashraf and 16 others involved in a rental power projects (RPP) scheme, which was aimed at boosting electricity generation to ease the impact of frequent power cuts. It has said that graft watchdog, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), will be held responsible if any of the respondents manage to escape.

Critics had dubbed the prime minister "Raja Rental" as he allegedly took kickbacks as water and power minister, a post he left in 2011. He denies the claims.

Declaring the court order a victory, Qadri warmly welcomed the decision, which arrived just as he was addressing tens of thousands of demonstrators outside parliament in Islamabad. He announced that half of his work was completed and that the other half would soon be done.

The government "has wasted and brought a bad end to our armed forces, those armed forces who are highly sincere, highly competent and highly capable and highly professional," Reuters reported Qadri as saying. "Even they can't do anything because the political government isn't able to deliver anything from this land. Judgments are being passed by our great, independent judiciary but the government is not ready to implement them."

Ashraf was accused of receiving kickbacks in the rental power projects and of buying property in London from the money earned through corruption during his tenure between March 2008 and February 2011.

Plans for the installation of 14 RPPs were sponsored by the water and power ministry under Ashraf in 2009 at a projected cost of US$5 billion, with the aim of generating a total of 2,250 megawatts of electricity.

Although nine firms were reportedly given more than 22 billion rupees (US$225 million) in down payments from the government to commission the projects, Pakistan's The Nation has reported that "most of them did not set up their plants and a few of them installed them but with inordinate delay".

Ashraf's critics hold him responsible for the country's energy woes - rolling blackouts began nationwide in early 2008 and continue in 2013, with an energy shortfall of around 5,000 megawatts seeing the crisis intensify particularly in the sweltering summer months of 2011 and 2012.

The timing of the court's decision - and Qadri's reaction - is fueling conspiracy theories in social and political circles. The benchmark KSE 100-share index tumbled more than 3% following the verdict.
"The order was passed on the basis of a preliminary investigation report presented by NAB before the SC [Supreme Court], which carried a rider that the recommendations of the report were subject to legal advice, which the court did not wait for ...", wrote the Daily Times in an editorial.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) says such orders threaten the democratic process at a time when the country is still reeling from sectarian bombings last week in the city of Quetta that killed almost 100.

"It is difficult to measure the misfortune of the people of Pakistan; on the one hand, we are still burying the Quetta [bombing] victims and pondering over its consequences, while on the other hand Qadri has been haranguing an audience with double talk and lies... If nothing else, the judiciary has to weigh the consequences of its decisions on the state whose interest it is supposed to safeguard," wrote the HRCP.

Fawad Chaudhry, an aide to Ashraf, told Reuters that there was "no doubt" the military and Supreme Court were working together to topple the government.

Former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, the chief of the Pakistani Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI, or Justice Movement), has also threatened to lead a march on Islamabad if Zardari does not step down and Ashraf is not arrested as per the court's order.

"Free and fair elections cannot take place while Zardari is here. He is the reason for Pakistan's destruction," Khan told a press conference on Tuesday.

Many believe that Khan, like Qadri, is fully backed by the military establishment, charges that both politicans deny. Khan's PTI enjoys large support from Pakistani youth and in recent months held major rallies in all four provinces of the country.

If the army openly wades into the conflict between the government and the judiciary, this may delay the election, posing a further threat to the democratic system. If the generals and judges have indeed formed an alliance aiming at the creation of a "controlled democracy", then a new force, not tried and tested before in politics, could soon be ruling the country. Some political observers say the PTI, which is on good terms with both the judiciary and military, could be the political wing of that third force.
Demands by Qadri that the army be given a role in determining the country's electoral future have fueled speculation that military may be facilitating his protest march.

"The army isn't in a position to take over given the security challenges and the precarious economic situation. All the main political parties are in favor of elections which are just round the corner," Bloomberg reported Mehdi Hasan, a political analyst as saying. "Qadri, despite his impressive show doesn't have a political constituency. He can't force a government to resign that's still enjoying a majority in parliament."

Judicial activism reflects a power shift in a country where military had ruled supreme for the last six decades. It has been the army in the past that dismissed the civilian governments but now the judiciary is powerful enough to oust a sitting premier and his cabinet.

It also marks a major turnaround from November 2007, when former Pakistani president, retired General Pervez Musharraf, fired the country's top judiciary - including current Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary - and imposed emergency rule.

The major difference apparent from Pakistan's long history of military-led coups is that the army's hand is cloaked by the court's. It seems the rules have changed - but the game is the same.

Syed Fazl-e-Haider ( www.syedfazlehaider.com ) is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan, published in May 2004. E-mail, sfazlehaider05@yahoo.com.

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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