Raja Pervez Ashraf

The world watches in suspended disbelief as Pakistan is in the throes of a political crisis sprung by a power struggle between an activist judiciary and its recalcitrant executive – yet again.

The current crisis has been triggered by a direction last Wednesday by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf to indicate, within two weeks, whether he had any intention to ask Swiss authorities to review corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. These cases date from the 1990s and accuse Zardari and his deceased wife Benazir of laundering $12 million in bribes through the Swiss banking system. Raja Pervez Ashraf was elected Prime Minister of Pakistan just eight days ago. The corruption charges against Ashraf was known at the time of the election.

However, protection from prosecution was assured by the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) which was issued on October 5, 2007, by former President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf. The NRO granted amnesty to government functionaries from charges of corruption, murder, embezzlement, money laundering, and terrorism between January 1, 1986, and October 12, 1999.

On 16 December 2009, the NRO was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Prime Minister Ashraf’s predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani lost his office as Prime Minister on June 19 after the Supreme Court dismissed Gilani for refusing to reopen the multi-million-dollar cases by writing to the Swiss. On March 9 the court had directed Gilani to “implement the NRO ruling without seeking any further advice and submit his written statement before the court ten days later.” Gilani refused to write the letters on the grounds that it was against the advice of his legal team, and that he was not permitted to do so by the Constitution.

What is Ashraf’s stand? In somewhat strong words, as reported in the Pak Tribune, he said Saturday that his government would not let its “first-class president” to surrender to a “third-class magistrate” because “we believe in supremacy of the constitution and law”. Further, “He (Asif Ali Zardari) is the democratically elected president of Pakistan and as per law he enjoys the immunity as long as he holds the office,” the Prime Minister said. Ashraf intends to announce his decision regarding the Supreme Court notice to him to write to the Swiss, on July 12.

With both sides apparently taking a hard line on the issue, analysts fear the government may not last its full five-year term, as elections may be called before that date.