Prime minister, president and chief justice on collision course

 

The three pillars of Pakistan's civil establishment were locked on course for a head-on collision last night. An unrepentant Prime Minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif, accused the president and the chief justice of conspiring against the people. Mr Sharif's threat of a fight to the finish against his foes - the Chief Justice, Mr Sajjad Ali Shah, and the President, Mr Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari - intensifies a confrontation which has paralysed the country for the last fortnight.

After a weekend in which the three men traded angry and uncompromising letters, the prevailing power in Pakistan, the army, was closeted in an unscheduled meeting yesterday at its headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Although historically the Pakistani military has been the enemy of elected governments, in the past fortnight the army chief, Gen Jehangir Karamat, has been cast as an unlikely arbitrator in a constitutional crisis which may lead to the removal of the chief justice, the president or even Mr Sharif. There is also a remote prospect that the army which has ruled Pakistan for half of its 50 years could seize power again.

"They have committed a great crime against the people, but I cannot change my path because of a conspiracy," Mr Sharif said in a speech on national television last night. "I will fight."

While the initial differences between Mr Sharif and Mr Shah arose over the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court, it has degenerated into a personal feud, fuelled by the raising of corruption allegations against the prime minister and the suspension of laws enacted by his government.

Mr Sharif accused the president and the chief justice of colluding to obstruct parliament and to unseat his government, which won a huge mandate in elections last February. "I was not elected to fight legal cases. The people voted for me to revive the economy, to restore law and order and to end corruption . . . I want to complete my mission."

He was dismissive of the pending legal cases against him. Clutching a hand to his heart, he said: "I don't have time for these frivolous things. It would be a great injustice to the nation if I am tied down on such issues. They have nothing to do with the problems of the country."

The next decisive phase in the three-cornered struggle is set for today at conflicting sessions of the Supreme Court, which pit Mr Shah against rebel judges.

Earlier yesterday, Mr Shah warned mutinous Supreme Court justices to bow to his authority, adopting an uncompromising tone in line with Saturday's vitriolic exchanges of letters between Mr Sharif and Mr Leghari.

"There can be no greater evidence of the dismal failure of your government's administration than that provided by the unprecedentedly shameful events of the last few days," Mr Leghari wrote. "The Chief Justice of Pakistan is more than justified in expressing his total lack of trust and faith in the ability of your administration to provide security in Islamabad for the smooth and lawful running of the Supreme Court."