Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme

The decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to disqualify the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, from office is the latest stage of a long-running battle within Pakistan’s political class. While it is likely to trigger a shuffling of deckchairs amongst the elite, perhaps its greatest significance is in demonstrating the continued inability of Pakistan’s leaders to put differences to one side and tackle the country’s myriad problems.

The Supreme Court decision stems from an earlier decision finding Mr Gilani guilty of contempt of court. He had refused to reopen a corruption investigation against the president, Asif Ali Zardari. Mr Gilani had argued that the constitution barred criminal proceedings against the president. Just days previously, the son of the chief justice was himself accused of accepting bribes. In response to Mr Gilani’s disqualification, one of the first reactions of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was to accuse the Supreme Court of diverting attention from its own issues.

While the Supreme Court has argued that it is acting in accordance to the law, the court does not appear to be impartial in the fights that it picks. Many believe that the military has encouraged the Supreme Court to undermine the government, in the hope of ensuring a non-PPP government in the forthcoming general election. Regardless of the flaws in the PPP-led coalition, there would be immense symbolism if the current government was allowed to run its course and become the first civilian government to survive for a full term. The disqualification of Mr Gilani makes that less likely.

Having accepted the Supreme Court decision, the weakened PPP will now choose a successor to Mr Gilani. What is most depressing is that despite the widespread acceptance that Pakistan’s main requirement is for the strengthening of its civilian institutions, those involved in Pakistani politics, including its judiciary, seem intent on undermining them. And while Pakistan’s elites continue to argue over the distribution of power, vital questions relating to the actual use of that power go unanswered. 

Pakistan continues to face threats from Islamist militants. At the same time, its failure to crack down on militants operating in Afghanistan has strained to breaking point its relationship with the US. This in turn has economic repercussions in reduced inflows of financial support. Pakistan’s economy continues to suffer from 'load-shedding' - planned power cuts - stemming from a failure to add sufficient generating capacity in recent years.

Ironically, the glimmer of light in recent months has been a series of moves to improve relations, and in particular to enhance economic ties, with India. These, for now, appear to have broad support of the main political parties and the military. But a period of internal political wrangling will do little to expedite any rapprochement.