The historic flooding that has ravaged Pakistan was considered for a brief period to be a grave threat to the country’s stability. Analysts were unsure if the young democratic government would be able to provide relief and reconstruction services enough to satisfy a panicking public. As the waters subsided, though, the civilian government demonstrated that it could work with the military and the international community to provide services to the people. Today, however, the government faces a possibly greater challenge: continued attacks from the nation’s judiciary.
Pakistan’s judiciary has been threatening to topple the democratically elected government in what many are calling a “coup by other means”. While unprecedented challenges to elected officials have been going on for some time, the courts appear to be determined to continue their attacks.
Since its December judgment striking down an amnesty that shielded President Asif Ali Zardari and other officials from old criminal allegations, the top court has pressed the government on corruption, in particular a dated money-laundering case against Zardari. The stakes have risen as repeated government delays have stoked frustration within the army and the political opposition. Another showdown is scheduled for Wednesday, when the court could hold the prime minister in contempt or indicate that it will reconsider Zardari’s presidential immunity from prosecution.
The standoff has cemented the Supreme Court’s position as a central player in Pakistan’s nascent democracy. But it has also highlighted questions about the solidity of that system.
The Army has largely stayed out of the affair, though as Ahmed Rashid writes for BBC, they would stand to gain the most should the courts succeed in overthrowing the government.
It would be a constitutional rather than a military coup, so that Western donors helping Pakistan with flood relief would not be unduly put off, but the army would gain even more influence if it were to happen.
The courts, for their part, are attacking the government from two flanks – the Supreme Court is threatening to disqualify President Asif Zardari more than two years since his election, and the Lahore High Court – headed by Chief Justice Khawaja Sharif, an ardent supporter of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) – has reinstated an old corruption conviction against Interior Minister Rehman Malik, despite his having been pardoned in May.
According to a growing number of voices in the legal community, the politicization of Pakistan’s courts is a growing problem that threatens the stability of the government and the legitimacy of the nation’s judiciary.
“This judge and the court have embarked upon politics,” said lawyer Khurram Latif Khosa, whose father, also a lawyer, advises Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. “The lawyers who were chanting slogans in their favor are now burning effigies of their idols.”
Mr. Khosa is not alone in his analysis. His statement echoes the sentiments of Supreme Court advocate and human rights activist Asma Jahangir who wrote in December of last year:
While, the NRO can never be defended even on the plea of keeping the system intact, the Supreme Court judgment has wider political implications. It may not, in the long run, uproot corruption from Pakistan but will make the apex court highly controversial.
Witch-hunts, rather than the impartial administration of justice, will keep the public amused. The norms of justice will be judged by the level of humiliation meted out to the wrongdoers, rather than strengthening institutions capable of protecting the rights of the people.
There is no doubt that impunity for corruption and violence under the cover of politics and religion has demoralised the people, fragmented society and taken several lives. It needs to be addressed but through consistency, without applying different standards, and by scrupulously respecting the dichotomy of powers within statecraft. In this respect the fine lines of the judgment do not bode well.
The lawyers’ movement and indeed the judiciary itself has often lamented that the theory of separation of powers between the judiciary, the legislature and the executive has not been respected. The NRO judgment has disturbed the equilibrium by creating an imbalance in favour of the judiciary.
A few months later, Ms. Jahangir’s tone turned decidedly more dire.
People will soon witness a judicial dictatorship in the country if the judiciary continuously moves ahead in its present direction and then we would forget military and political dictatorships, HRCP chairperson Asma Jahangir said on Wednesday.
By April, even opposition politicians the PML-N were raising concerns that the courts were over-stepping their constitutional role to topple the government.
Raising concerns about the conspiracy, PML-N spokesman and senior leader Ahsan Iqbal has said that a third force wants a clash between the judiciary and parliament.
Iqbal did not name the third force precisely in the same fashion, as Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has repeatedly done in recent months, The News reports.
According to another PML-N leader, the Army is trying to pitch the judiciary against parliament and for this purpose it is using certain elements in the media.
Recently, Pakistan’s Chief Justice issued a statement condemning those who are speaking out against perceived judicial overreach.
Ironically, the Chief Justice who is leading this assault on the government, Iftikhar Chaudhry, was himself the victim of extra-constitutional removal by then President and Chief of Army Staff Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Justice Chaudhry was released from detention by Pakistan’s newly elected government in 2008, and reinstated to the Supreme Court in 2009.
Some believe that during the year between Justice Chaudhry’s release from detention and his reinstatement, the judge grew to resent the new government and has taken it upon himself to bring a myriad of legal challenges to its authority. In fact, many of the cases before the court were not brought by any individual or official agency, but were taken up “suo moto” – by the choosing of the Chief Justice, himself.
Regardless of what is motivating the incessant attacks by members of Pakistan’s judiciary, the right to decide the nation’s leadership rests solely with the people of Pakistan. Military generals, religious clerics, and judicial appointees all have a role to play in the success of the nation. But each must work within the bounds of the constitution and the democratic process. Whether led by the military, the Taliban, or an army in black robes, a coup is a coup – and any coup will be devastating to Pakistan’s future.