Pakistan's political soap opera

Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani leaving the supreme court If found guilty, PM Yousuf Raza Gilani could face six months in prison

Earlier this week, Pakistan's prime minister appeared before the country's Supreme Court to defend himself against allegations of contempt - it is symbolic of a dispute that is on-going at the centre of the country's powerful elite.

When great institutions of state clash, history is made. It is the stuff of school history lessons - the Magna Carta, the Star Chamber, the Great Reform Act - that kind of thing.

But while in the UK such milestones have generally been once-a-century type events, in Pakistan they have become a way of life. Constitutional crises have become business as usual.

This week Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was forced to appear before the Supreme Court. He was there to face contempt proceedings related to the president's immunity from prosecution.

I will spare you the details. But as I sat in the court's press gallery, I felt pretty sure that in 100 years, Pakistani school children would not be learning about the January 2012 contempt case.

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Perhaps they will be studying something the Western journalists did not even know was happening: a debate between some clerics on what role Islam should have in the state.

But the court was colourful. There was the prime minister, alongside him his brilliant lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan and a throng of ministers showing solidarity.

And buzzing about all of them, the journalists - representatives of Pakistan's new, irrepressible 24-hour news television culture.

For millions of Pakistanis, the constant wrangling of the elite has the quality of a TV soap opera.

I do not want to belittle the importance of politics. The failure of successive elected and military governments has left millions of Pakistanis highly frustrated. But still the TV news shows attract massive audiences - people both despair of their leaders and want to know all about them.

Because many of the political parties are little more than family businesses, the same names have been around for decades - with power passed from father to daughter, brother to brother, and so on.

Pakistan's political crisis

  • 2 May: Pakistan's army widely criticised after the US raid on Bin Laden's Abbottabad home
  • 10 October: A Financial Times article reveals the existence of an anonymous memo written after the raid, asking for US help to curb the army
  • 22 November: Pakistan's US envoy Husain Haqqani resigns after claims he and President Zardari wrote the memo - they deny this
  • 23 December: Army chief dismisses coup rumours after PM Yousuf Raza Gilani speaks out against an alleged coup plot
  • 30 December: Pakistan's Supreme Court opens an inquiry into the "memo-gate" affair
  • 11 January: The army publicly rebukes Mr Gilani after he criticised army leaders in an interview. He responds by sacking Pakistan's defence secretary

All this is against a backdrop of corruption cases, the frequent imprisonment of politicians, the "war on terror", suicide attacks, assassinations, US military incursions - there is so much going on.

Pakistani news anchors can pirouette from the big news such as "The Prime Minister's Day in Court", to the tittle-tattle - the affairs, the hair transplants, the family rows.

"Will the generals and judges force the president from power?"

"Is he really sacrificing a goat every day for good luck?"

"Who is he grooming as his political heir? His son Bilawal or - the latest theory - his youngest daughter Asifa?"

And so it goes on.

A small number of Pakistanis - such as Husain Haqqani - have fought their way to the top without the benefit of powerful relatives.

Until recently he was Pakistan's ambassador to the US. His political antennae are so acute he is normally 10 moves ahead of everyone else.

Unfortunately for him he appeared to overreach recently with a complicated manoeuvre designed to get the US administration to help the civilian government rein in the army.

It backfired, and now he is living under virtual house arrest in the prime minister's residence, saying he knows too much and fears he will be killed.

One of Husain Haqqani's main accusers is a multi-millionaire businessman, attempted peace negotiator in places such as Kashmir, and all-purpose political operator, Mansoor Ijaz.

Now he has turned out to be a great guest star in the never-ending national drama. Having written a Financial Times open editorial which accused Mr Haqqani of conniving against the military and almost forced the fall of the government, he then turned up this week in a video that flashed round Pakistan in a matter of minutes.

Hussain Haqqani (C), Pakistan's former ambassador to the US Mr Haqqani denies any links to an unsigned memo asking the US for help

It showed him at a semi-nude wrestling match between two women. The very well-heeled, slightly Eurotrashy audience cheered and booed as the women writhed in the ring with the man himself - Mansoor Ijaz - providing a blow-by-blow commentary. You could not make it up.

Another long-standing character might soon land a major part - Imran Khan. The former cricket star turned politician has hunky good looks, a deep aristocratic drawl and a beautiful home, complete with courtyards and a whole pack of dogs, on a hill overlooking Islamabad.

For years, Pakistan experts have told everyone he has no serious political base. But after two massive public rallies, everyone is now talking about him. Has his time come?

There are so many other players - gutsy journalists breaking stories, feeble ones cultivating the mullahs, firebrand lawyers challenging the establishment, pompous judges, preening army officers and always the venal politicians.

Of course Pakistani politics matters. It matters to millions of people who ache for good, decent leadership. But as many of those people would be the first to say it is also quite a show.

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