Islamabad: Pakistan faced a fresh political crisis on Tuesday when its Supreme Court ruled Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani stood disqualified and "ceased" to be in office since April 26 when he was convicted and sentenced for contempt of court.
Asking President Asif Ali Zardari to appoint a new PM, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry said in a packed courtroom: “Since no appeal was filed (against the April 26 conviction) ... therefore Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani stands disqualifed as a Member of the Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament)...”
"He has also ceased to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan ... the office of the Prime Minister stands vacant."
The verdict of the three-judge bench, headed by Justice Chaudhry, came in response to several petitions that had challenged National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza`s decision not to disqualify Gilani following his conviction nearly two months ago.
A shocked ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) immediately accepted the verdict and decided to replace the 60-year-old Gilani, who has been the Prime Minister since March 2008.
The PPP Parliamentary Party is expected to meet tomorrow to decide on his replacement and the names of federal ministers Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, Makhdoom Shahabuddin and Khursheed Shah are doing the rounds for the post.
President Zardari has meanwhile cancelled his two-day visit from tomorrow to Russia to attend a meeting of the International Economic Forum.
The PPP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) met at the presidency immediately after the verdict today. The party is also likely to file a review petition against today’s decision in the Supreme Court.
It is not clear how the Pakistani government will deal with the decisions that have been taken by the Prime Minister or his Cabinet since April 26.
The bench, also comprising Justice Jawwad S Khawaja and Justice Khilji Arif Hussain, had been hearing a set of petitions filed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), Azhar Chaudhry advocate and others challenging Mirza`s ruling of May 24.
The bench said the post of Premier had been vacant since April 26, when another seven-judge bench had convicted Gilani of contempt for refusing to reopen graft cases in Switzerland against President Zardari.
The bench also directed the Election Commission to issue a notification stating that Gilani, 60, was no longer a Member of Parliament. The EC promptly issued that notification.
In response to a demand from a petitioner that the court should direct the President to order the election of a new premier, the bench asked Zardari to act according to the Constitution for the continuation of democracy.
Verdict on expected lines
The apex court`s ruling had been expected in political circles for some time.
During the hearing of the petitions yesterday, the Chief Justice had questioned whether a convicted person could continue representing the 180 million people of Pakistan.
The judiciary and the government have been engaged in a standoff since December 2009, when the apex court annulled a graft amnesty issued by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf that benefited Zardari and over 8,000 others.
Since then, the judiciary has been pressuring the government to reopen the corruption cases against Zardari.
The government refused to act, saying the President enjoyed immunity from prosecution in Pakistan and abroad.
Matters reached a head when the apex court charged Gilani with contempt for refusing to act on its orders earlier this year.
Gilani was convicted and given a symbolic sentence of less than a minute on April 26.
Gilani refused to resign even though the apex court had said at the time that his conviction could lead to his disqualification.
The Speaker last month ruled out the disqualification of Gilani following his conviction, saying he had not been charged with acting in a manner prejudicial to the integrity or independence of the judiciary.
The apex court`s disqualification will add to the problems of the PPP-led government, which is grappling with an economic meltdown and crippling power outages across the country that have triggered violent protests.
The government is also facing a spike in militant activities in the northwestern tribal belt and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.