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The Dismissal of Pakistan's Prime Minister: It Could Have Been Worse

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Soon after the news broke on Tuesday that Pakistan's Supreme Court had ousted Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the U.S. news media went into overdrive.

"Political instability rises," blared the New York Times. "Turmoil in Pakistan," proclaimed the Associated Press. "Pakistan's highest court plunges country into uncertainty," declared Time. And the American Interest warned that "Pakistan's descent into political chaos is picking up speed."

Fears abounded of worst-case scenarios. Some predicted the government would resist the Supreme Court's order, leading to government paralysis. Others warned that supporters of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) would take to the streets. Still others suggested Pakistan's powerful army would feel a need to intervene to restore order.

In fact, there's little reason to assume any of these scenarios will come to pass. The Supreme Court decision was controversial and of dubious legality, yet the situation could have been a lot worse.

Much credit is owed to Islamabad. It quickly accepted the Supreme Court's decision, and has indicated it will name a new prime minister by the end of this week. Additionally, leaders of Pakistan's major political parties have wisely called on their supporters to accept the verdict and to refrain from protest. For several days, Pakistan's streets have swelled with demonstrators agitating -- some violently -- against the country's rampant power outages. A new wave of protestors would have dramatically intensified this unrest.

In Washington, there is concern that the loss of Gilani jeopardizes U.S. negotiations with Pakistan over reopening NATO supply routes closed since late last year, and over ending the war in Afghanistan. Yet such worries are unwarranted. Gilani's replacement should be in place in a matter of days, and his cabinet -- including a key U.S. interlocutor, foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar -- will be reinstated, so long as each member takes a new oath of office. Additionally, the most important Pakistani participants in any negotiations with Washington -- Army officials -- are unaffected by Gilani's departure.

There is, however, good reason to worry about what lies beyond the immediate horizon. First, Pakistan's fractious governing coalition may be hard-pressed to reach consensus on a new prime minister. Second, once in office, the premier will likely be pressured by the Supreme Court to do the very thing Gilani refused to do, and which ultimately got him fired -- ask Switzerland to re-open a corruption case against Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. Swiss authorities have actually suggested they wouldn't revive the case if asked (due to statutes of limitations and presidential immunity), but Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, will not be deterred. Chaudhry harbors a deep dislike of Zardari. This is because when Pervez Musharraf was president, he ousted Chaudhry as chief justice, and when Zardari took power, he refused to reinstate him. (Zardari, who later relented, feared that Chaudhry, if reinstated, would pursue legal charges against Zardari -- and this is exactly what he did.)

The next prime minister would likely take Gilani's lead and refuse to go to the Swiss. He or she would justify this decision by invoking Zardari's presidential immunity, but the real rationale would be political. Chaudhry, an icon of Pakistan's pro-democracy movement during the Musharraf era, is now increasingly unpopular with common Pakistanis, many of whom regard him as just another member of the country's vendetta-driven, corrupt elite (Chaudhry's family is currently embroiled in a scandal over shady financial dealings with a real estate tycoon). For this reason, defying Chaudhry once again would be well-received in the court of public opinion.

A new executive/judiciary confrontation could easily arise, raising troubling questions. Would the Supreme Court bring charges against the new prime minister, threaten to remove him or her, and, given the precedent set this week, follow through on such a threat? Would such actions imperil the holding of elections, which must occur by March? And how would the military -- which many believe is cheering the Supreme Court on -- respond to all this?

If the Supreme Court restrains itself until after the elections, some of these anxieties may be alleviated. Yet the elections themselves are a major concern. Pakistan's chief opposition figure, Nawaz Sharif, responded to Tuesday's announcement by calling for early elections. However, given the unpopularity of Zardari and the PPP, the government has little incentive to push for polls before March 2013.

Ultimately, however, the most tragic consequence of the Supreme Court verdict is that it effectively sidelines another, and arguably more important, crisis of power in Pakistan: the energy crisis. With temperatures soaring and power outages lasting up to 20 hours a day, businesses are shuttering and Pakistanis are hot and angry -- as evidenced by this week's riots.

The takeaway? Pakistan's political elite fight amongst themselves, oblivious to -- or uninterested in -- the plight of the masses. It's a sad yet basic reality about Pakistan since its independence.