Over the past five years, Pakistan’s courts were widely criticized for pushing the boundaries of reasonable judicial oversight and taking an aggressively adversarial role against the previous Pakistani government. Many observers assumed that the judiciary’s behavior was the result of a personal dislike for former President Asif Zardari on the part of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other judges. Whether or not that was the case, the judiciary’s activism did not end with the Zardari government earlier this year – something that does not bode well for Pakistan’s democracy.
In June, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed former Punjab caretaker minister Najam Sethi as interim chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, the sport’s governing body. Less than a month later, the Islamabad High Court voided all decisions made by Sethi and so severely restricted his decision making authority as caretaker chairman as to threaten the ability of the nation to field teams.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court, a tireless adversary of the previous PPP-led government, showed surprising deference to the newly elected government last month, approving a PML-N petition to move the date of presidential elections forward on the calendar to accommodate the holiday Eid-ul-Fitr. While the week’s change would not likely have changed the outcome of the election, moving the election up instead of postponing it until after the holiday gives at least the appearance of favoritism to the ruling party – a perception that was not lost on opposition parties including the PPP who chose to boycott the election arguing that the last-minute change critically curtailed their campaign schedules.
In the most recent episode of judicial activism, the Supreme Court has once again filed contempt charges against a prominent politician for publicly criticizing the court. This time, it was PTI Chairman Imran Khan who found himself in the Chief Justice’s crosshairs for allegedly suggesting that the judiciary along with the Election Commission of Pakistan were involved in election rigging during the nation’s general elections in May of this year. Rather
Rather than open inquiries into Khan’s allegations, the judiciary chose to threaten to disqualify him from political participation. The Supreme Court rejected Khan’s response today as “insufficient,” and the PTI chief told reporters that he has no plans to apologize, putting the nation’s highest court and the popular politician at loggerheads until the next hearing scheduled for August 28.
The judiciary’s recent actions suggest that Pakistan’s judiciary continues to seek an expanded role in defining what an emerging democratic Pakistan looks like. Unfortunately, by interfering with issues that more properly fall under the purview of the executive branch, involving itself in political controversies, and trying to silence critics through threats and intimidation, the judiciary may be doing more harm than good.