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Pakistan's Prime Minister Disqualified From Office


A slow-moving crisis facing the government of Pakistan just grew more serious. Pakistan's Supreme Court has ruled that the prime minister is no longer eligible to hold office. That's because the very same court convicted Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt. Now in theory, this could mean that a top leadership post of a vital U.S. ally is suddenly vacant. In reality, this is Pakistan, where the confrontation between elected officials and the court has been unfolding for years. So, we are going to try to sort this out with Declan Walsh of the New York Times. He's on the line from Islamabad. Welcome to the program.

DECLAN WALSH: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Is the prime minister really out of a job here, because this confrontation has been going on for awhile?

WALSH: Well, it certainly looks that way. The Supreme Court issued this judgment this afternoon, saying that effectively, as you say, Mr. Gilani has in fact not been eligible for office since April 26th. That's when the courts convicted him of contempt. The court had been pursuing Mr. Gilani for many months before that, insisting that he write to the authorities in Switzerland to restart a corruption prosecution of the president, Asif Ali Zardari. Mr. Gilani had refused to write that letter, saying that he believes that under the constitution of Pakistan, the president enjoys immunity from prosecution, and that therefore, he wasn't able to do so. The court obviously took a very different view and this crisis has been going along slowly for many months now. But it finally seems to if not have reached a conclusion, at least it's reached this very dramatic step, where we have a court dismissing the prime minister, effectively suspending the cabinet, and instructing President Zardari that he now needs to institute the steps under which a new prime minister will be chosen.

INSKEEP: Is the Supreme Court in a position to actually force him to quit when he has ignored them for so long?

WALSH: Well, the Supreme Court certainly believes that it has the constitutional authority to do that. The question now is how the ruling party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, is going to react. In the past, certainly, outside the court, the party has very strongly made the case that it believes that this is a politically driven prosecution. The party says that there is a longstanding personal animus between Mr. Zardari and the chief justice, and that effectively that Mr. Gilani, if you like, the man caught in the middle between these two very powerful figures, and that the court has used its powers, really, to go after Mr. Zardari indirectly. But on the other hand, if the ruling party were to somehow reject the legality of this finding, and for instance, you know, refuse to have Mr. Gilani step down, well, that would escalate this even further and trigger potentially a very destabilizing situation, one in which you could have the military tempted to intervene.

So certainly, the stakes are very high, but the indications we're getting at the moment, they're saying that the ruling party appears minded to accept this decision and the question then will be how they're to proceed about electing a new a prime minister.

INSKEEP: Has the government been able to focus on doing anything in recent months besides trying to stay in power in the face of this threat?

WALSH: That's an excellent question, and there have been so many scandals, distractions for the government, particularly in the last six months. There are political issues with the United States over the reopening of NATO supply lines through Pakistan. And so, all of these things have very much distracted from the ability of the government to engage in the day-to-day running of the country, and certainly, critics would say that that has really come to a head at the moment in Punjab Province over the last couple of days. People are very angry about massive electricity power outages. And the sort of violence that we've seen, with thousands of people sometimes clashing with police on the streets of Punjab. Certainly seems to very much be an expression of public anger and at those failures of governance.

INSKEEP: Declan Walsh of the New York Times. He's in Islamabad. Thanks very much.

WALSH: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.