On Wednesday, a 17-judge bench of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, declared the infamous National Reconciliation Ordinance “null and void,” a ruling hailed by media outlets as a “landmark” and “historic” decision. According to the ruling, corruption cases registered between Jan 1, 1986, and Oct 12, 1999 that were dismissed by the NRO can now be reopened, meaning that more than 8,000 people, including 34 politicians, are now under scrutiny.
The main fall guy in the aftermath of this development, though, will be President Asif Ali Zardari. Wednesday’s ruling further fueled criticism of Zardari, who has earned the nickname “Mister Ten Percent” for good reason. Technically, Zardari cannot be prosecuted for these charges, since the Constitution cloaks the president with immunity. We all know that. And if we didn’t, his band of 1920’s-style-cronies were there to remind us yesterday, (I could almost hear them muttering, “Meh, hide the dough“). Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babur told reporters Wednesday, “The president enjoys the immunity under Article 248(2) of the Constitution.” And despite calls from opposition parties for him to step down, Babur asserted the president had “no intention” of doing so.
Borrowing a line from a well-known Bushism, this does not mean more will not be done “to smoke Zardari out of his cave.” Prior to the NRO ruling Wednesday, the NY Times reported that “indignant” Supreme Court judges “demanded to know why $60 million in the suspect gains of President Asif Ali Zardari had been given back to offshore companies in his name rather than returned to the national treasury, where they said it rightfully belonged.”
In the ruling on Wednesday, the judges found that the withdrawal of the cases against Zardari in Switzerland, (ordered by the former attorney general, Malik Qayyum), was illegal and that Swiss authorities should be contacted to “restore the proceedings.” The case, which implicated the late Benazir Bhutto, Zardari, and their agent Jens Schlegelmilch in allegations of taking $60 million in kickbacks, was pending in the Swiss court at the time the NRO was promulgated by former President Musharraf (and brokered, ironically, by Britain and the U.S.) in October 2007. It was then dropped in April 2008.
Amid this controversy, Zardari could take the moral high ground and step down from the presidency, thereby shedding his immunity and leaving him vulnerable for prosecution. However, survival always trumps morality in Pakistani politics. Therefore, Zardari will try to stay in power – but given that his own party seems to be distancing themselves from him – he will increasingly shift power to PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, everyone’s favorite jadoogar.
This shift has been occurring for some time now. Last month, just hours before the expiry of the NRO, the president transferred the power of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to Gilani, who has increasingly been depicted as the “good guy” in this mess. Zardari is also under increasing pressure to relinquish his other key powers, namely those related to the 17th Amendment, by the end of this month.
Will this be enough to satisfy his opposition? Maybe, but it will also dull the symbolic impact of the Supreme Court ruling yesterday, a decision meant to stab at the rampant corruption in Pakistani society. In the aftermath of the NRO nullification, though, we must also go beyond just holding people accountable and develop solutions that address the root causes behind corruption, and why it is so ingrained in Pakistani culture. If some charges against politicians are politically motivated (because, let’s face it, many are), how can bureaus like the National Accountability Bureau be effective tools in weeding out the good cases from the bad? While complete transparency is a utopian ideal for any society, what good practices can be instituted to get us on a better path?