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.
As the dust settles on Pakistan’s elections, Nawaz Sharif is gearing up to lead the country for a third time, and experts in Washington seem to be feeling cautiously optimistic. Many US-Pakistan experts expressed relief that Sharif won over Imran Khan, weighing Khan’s proposed hardline policy with the US and his lack of foreign policy experience in contrast to Sharif. At the same time, analysts realize that the dynamics of the US-Pakistan relationship will change under Sharif’s administration, as he will be more likely to push back against US demands than the People’s Party. This new dynamic will require the US to pursue a tactical relationship that is cognizant of both the shared and dissimilar interests of the two countries, potentially leading to greater stability.
With general elections expected early next year, Thursday’s “by-election” for the National Assembly seat vacated by former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was watched closely as a bellwether for what a post-2013 Pakistani government will look like. Based on the results of Thursday’s vote, it may look a lot like the present government.
The President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, Asma Jahangir, warned of creeping “judicial dictatorship” and an attitude of intolerance towards other government institutions following a recent Supreme Court decisions. Though the Chief Justice may believe that his court is acting in the best interest of the nation, it is important that he allow other institutions to grow and develop independently.
At issue is the appointment of retired Justice Deedar Shah as chairman of the National Accountability Bureau, the nation’s primary anti-corruption agency. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ordered Justice Shah to step down following claims by opposition politicians that the retired Justice is a supporter the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). According to Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) spokesman Siddiqul Farooq, the constitutional requirement for consultation on the appointment “means seeking the consent of the opposition.”
Ms Jahangir does not take issue with the need for a consensus-based consultation, but strongly objects to the court, “as it provided for the chief justice of Pakistan to decide the matter if the leaders of the house and opposition were at dispute over the appointment.” This is not the first time that concerns have been raised over the court’s interference in politics.
The core question is not regarding the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, but rather what is the effect of extending the sphere of the Court’s influence to matters that belong to the public sphere or other branches of the government. The 18th amendment case is an example of the Supreme Court ruling on (and possibly against) the unanimous consensus of the elected representatives of the people.
Another example is the suo moto (of its own motion) notice taken by Lahore High Court’s Divisional Bench on the high price of sugar in the country. The superior courts in Pakistan are empowered to take suo moto cognizance of any matter the court feels is in public interest. In general terms, this power means the court can take up a matter and rule on it without anyone approaching the court. The court fixed the price of sugar at 40 Pakistani Rupees per kilogram, ignoring the market forces influencing the price. The court’s credentials in economic management are open to debate. Although driven by the best of motives, the outcome was that neither the price nor the supply stabilized. This was question for the economists and Parliament, not for the courts. Similar examples can be found in the Supreme Court declaring the levy of the Carbon Tax as invalid and the annulment of the privatization [PDF] of the Pakistan Steel Mill.
Pakistan’s political parties demonstrated earlier this year that, while negotiations may appear to be messy at times, the parties are learning how to work together to reach consensus on important issues. This learning process must be allowed to continue without interference from the courts. Pakistan’s justices may believe that they are acting in the interests of the people, but by circumventing due process and intervening in political affairs, the courts are stunting the maturation of Pakistan’s democratic system.
Despite Chicken Little headlines declaring the government in ‘crisis,” the political negotiations in Pakistan are a natural part of parliamentary politics and, some analysts suggest, point to progress in the nation’s democracy.
The decision by the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) party to leave its seats in the federal cabinet – but remain on the treasury benches – has surprised political analysts who see the move as strategically questionable.
Leaders from the nation’s largest opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz faction (PML-N), have exchanged harsh words with the MQM following their decision. In fact, the two parties are historically less politically aligned than the MQM-PPP alliance, and many suspect that MQM, with 25 seats in parliament, would have less influence under a coalition headed by the PML-N.
Still, the government is taking MQM’s concerns quite seriously. President Zardari has forbidden party officials from speaking ill of coalition members, and has reached out to MQM chief Altaf Hussain to assure him that the PPP will address his party’s concerns. Sindh Home Minister Dr. Zulfiqar Mirza, who earlier this month accused MQM activists of perpetrating political violence in Karachi, has offered to take a back seat to ease MQM concerns.
While some suggest that the move could result in mid-term elections, that does not seem likely. Pakistani analyst Cyril Almeida notes that a no-confidence vote in the parliament is mathematically impossible without PML-N support, a position opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar has previously dismissed.
With the ongoing threat from extremist groups, a fragile – albeit improving – economy, and a struggling energy sector, one would not be surprised to see the PML-N decide to let the PPP finish its term if only to bolster their own chances in the 2013 elections.
Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi, president of the Pakistan Chamber of Commerce–USA, writes for Pakistan’s Daily Times that mid-term elections would be counterproductive at this late stage in the government’s tenure.
Mid-term elections will just be a game of musical chairs between the existing cadres of leaders but will cost the nation a lot of money and loss of productivity in the economy. There are only two years left in the term of the current government, which is not a long time to wait. During this time, the local bodies’ elections should be held so that an institution for future leaders is reinstated. These elections will be a litmus test of the nation’s choice for the next government in the province and Centre.
All things considered, it is not unusual to see internal coalition politics get messy, especially in countries with relatively young democratic systems. An editorial in today’s Dawn explains that the political dance is not unusual in coalition politics, and the way that all parties are handling themselves is encouraging.
With the PPP about a third of the way from having a majority in the National Assembly, the role of the supporting cast is crucial, and that was always going to be fertile ground for uncertainty. However, in a welcome sign that perhaps Pakistani politicians have matured somewhat, not a single political player of any significance has suggested his intention is to remove the government or perhaps even derail the democratic process.
Though the US is not a parliamentary democracy, I’m sure that President Obama can closely sympathize with his Pakistani counterpart Asif Zardari’s situation. Trying to hold together a coalition of politicians eager to demonstrate their independence and with their own political ambitions is no easy feat. That he’s managed to do so despite the challenges his government has faced is a testament not only to President Zardari’s staying power, but to an often underestimated political astuteness. As coalition partners negotiate, one things looks clear – the present government is navigating the tumultuous waters of democracy quite well.
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.
Getting people to pay their taxes is a problem as old as taxes themselves. Even Jesus caused controversy by having dinner with Zacchaeus the tax collector – a hated man in his community. So it should probably come as no real surprise that Pakistan, like all nations, has a sizeable tax gap – the difference between taxes owed and taxes paid.
New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise puts the blame squarely on the politicians, saying that the nation’s dysfunctional tax system is “mostly because the politicians who make the rules are also the country’s richest citizens, and are skilled at finding ways to exempt themselves.”
That is an incorrect characterization.
Jama’atud Dawa purports to be a charity organization in Pakistan, though it is well known to be a front group for the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba. Banned by the Pakistani government, its leader Hafiz Saeed has been in and out of custody over the past few years due to his suspected involvement in terrorist acts including the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Despite the organization’s banned status, however, the government of Punjab recently awarded the group a grand of Rs 82 Million ($959,500). Member of the National Assembly (MNA) Sherry Rehman (PPP) is furious.
According to a report in Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper, the ruling-party lawmaker is fed up with ‘mollycoddling’ of terrorists, and wants to put a stop to this sort of passive support for terrorist groups.
“The country can no longer afford this mollycoddling of terrorists, and Punjab is fast becoming a victim of its own ambiguity. There can be no military operation against terrorists in Punjab, but there must and should be a police sweep, with enough evidence to obtain convictions through our courts,” she added.
“Instead of building police capacity to throw such a dragnet around terrorists, who openly hold rallies in the streets of Lahore and Rawalpindi, we see money being doled out of the tax-payers pockets through the annual budgetary exercise. If this is not pampering a banned outfit, what is?” asked Rehman.
Sadly, this is not the first example of the ambiguity towards terrorism by the Punjab government referred to by MNA Rehman. In March of this year, Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif (PML-N) caused widespread outrage in the country when he asked the Taliban to “spare Punjab,” which many saw as requesting a separate peace with terrorists.
The statement, mainly for its parochial overtone, also came as a rude shock to those who otherwise have their reservations about the army’s efforts to eliminate Taliban, Al-Qaeda and foreign militants from the country’s lawless tribal region.
While Punjab Governor Salman Taseer — for obvious reasons — was the first to denounce the chief minister and accuse him of being an ally of the Taliban, many others thought Shahbaz Sharif’s appeal to the Taliban to “spare Punjab” amounted to justifying terrorist attacks in the rest of the country.
Noting that such support for , Sherry Rehman has demanded the Punjab government to take back the grant and focus on removing the practices and institutions that allow terrorist and terror-sympathetic groups to operate in Pakistan.
Aitzaz Ahsan is a former President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, and was a leader of the Lawyers’ Movement in Pakistan that opposed Gen. Musharraf’s unconstitutional attempt to suspend the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Today, Mr. Ahsan finds himself opposing the actions of the Chief Justice, warning that Pakistan’s Supreme Court is acting outside its constitutionally mandated authority.