LAHORE, Pakistan | New legal challenges to many of Pakistan’s leading politicians threaten to sap the government’s will to fight Islamic extremism and paralyze economic reforms.
Last week, the nation’s Supreme Court declared void an ordinance that had provided more than 8,000 people with immunity from prosecution for offenses allegedly committed before October 2007. The 8,000 people included top members of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Since then, leading politicians have been focusing on staying out of jail rather than running the country.
The amnesty allowed the now-deceased Benazir Bhutto and her husband, current President Asif Ali Zardari, to return to Pakistan despite outstanding corruption charges against Mr. Zardari. Now Mr. Zardari’s future and that of many of his top ministers appear in doubt.
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“The state of the country is shocking and worrisome,” said Lahore-based political analyst Hassan Askari. “No one knows how this drama will unfold or where we are headed. But there is widespread uncertainty.”
Shuja Nawaz, a Pakistan specialist who heads the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, based in Washington, said the government would now be “hugely distracted” from focusing on the threat from militants or Pakistan’s urgent economic problems. He said that new elections, not due until 2013, are unlikely, but that Mr. Zardari could see other powers taken from him and become “a figurehead president.”
Mr. Nawaz said Pakistan is experiencing an increasing number of electric power shortages, which could bring angry people into the streets and contribute to further instability.
While Pakistan’s military remains committed to fighting domestic terrorism, Mr. Nawaz said, a weakening of the Zardari government could leave the army less willing to go after Afghan militants. That would undercut the Obama administration’s new strategy for defeating the Taliban.
Ahmed Rashid, a specialist on the Taliban and the Pakistani military, wrote recently in Pakistan’s Daily Times: “There has been an unrelenting campaign by the military and political parties who are allied to the army to weaken Zardari so irreversibly that he is forced from office, and a new, more pliant president could be appointed who would do the bidding of the army - viewed by many as the largest and most effective political party in the country.
“Zardari is seen by the army as too pro-American and unwilling to support the military’s hard line against U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Afghan government, and India,” Mr. Rashid wrote.
On Friday, a court in Karachi issued an arrest warrant for Interior Minister Rehman Malik, a PPP stalwart, making him the highest-ranking official against whom such an action has been taken.
Warrants were also issued against 52 other individuals, including Mr. Zardari’s brother-in-law, Munawar Talpur; the local government minister of Sindh province, Agha Siraj Durrani; and the former chairman of Pakistan Steel Mills, Usman Farooqui.
Many of the corruption cases date from the 1990s, when the PPP alternated in government with the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) until a 1999 coup. Mr. Zardari, who served 11 years in prison, contends he was never convicted of corruption.
Lawyers affiliated with the PML dispute Mr. Zardaris assertion, citing a conviction in Switzerland that Mr. Zardari appealed.
“The ruling party has lost their moral standing,” said Kamran Shahid, a popular talk-show host. “The name of the PPP has been maligned, and even ordinary people are now asking for the resignation of PPP ministers.”
Public opinion seems to be rapidly turning against the ruling party. Aqeel Shahid, a businessman in Lahore, said, “By staying in power, all these politicians are giving our country a bad name. They should all resign and let honest people come in their place.”
Shabana Shahid, a housewife, agreed. “Dishonest people have no right to be our rulers,” she said.
Thursday, about 250 bureaucrats and politicians, including four federal ministers, were put on an exit-control list, meaning they are not allowed to leave the country. Among those on the list was Mr. Malik.
A huge controversy erupted when Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar was blocked from traveling to China on Thursday for a meeting with his Chinese counterpart.
After the Chinese complained to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Mr. Gilani met with Mr. Zardari and said that Mr. Mukhtar’s name had never been on the exit-control list.
The biggest question is what will happen to Mr. Zardari. Many legal experts say he is safe while he holds the country’s highest office. Article 248 of the constitution states that “no criminal proceedings whatsoever shall be instituted or continued against the President or a Governor in any court during his term of office.”
Legal analyst Aitzaz Ahsan, a member of the ruling party, said that it “would be unconstitutional and illegal to put the president up for trial.”
However, Supreme Court Bar Association President Qazi Anwar said that immunity only applies to cases involving the use of presidential powers and not prior offenses, which in Mr. Zardari’s case involve allegations that he took millions of dollars in bribes while his wife was prime minister.
“The immunity doesn’t provide a blanket cover,” Mr. Anwar said. “It only protects him from cases which might develop while he is a president.”
Senior journalist Naeem Tahir said the civilian government has essentially come to a standstill.
“Today, most of the high-ranking officials are meeting for a special session of the Central Executive Committee of the Pakistan Peoples Party to figure out how to save their skins,” Mr. Tahir said. “Since Wednesday, everyone is simply sitting with their lawyers and counsels to figure out a solution to this dilemma. No governance is taking place. No discussion on issues pertinent to the nation is taking place.”
• Raza Khan contributed to this story from Islamabad, and Barbara Slavin contributed from Washington.