COMMENT : Pakistan: what lies ahead? — Amit Ranjan
The judiciary acted with a missionary zeal and disqualified Mr Gilani, which was nothing but a transcendence of its constitutional power and a visceral attack on the authority of parliament
Pakistan democratically is passing through a difficult time due to a growing power tussle between two important institutions — the judiciary and the elected civilian executive. After the verdict by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on June 20, which disqualified the now former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani from continuing in office, the court has attracted the ire of almost all who are sensitive and in favour of having democracy in Pakistan. Many termed it as a ‘judicial coup’ and for someone like Ayesha Siddiqa — a civilian military and political analyst — “Ousting the prime minister instead of parliament is a new tactic of the khakis.”
Collaboration between the judiciary and military in Pakistan has a convoluted past. The judiciary had acted on the tune of the military rulers by legalising illegal military coups and validating the undemocratic laws made by generals. General Ayub Khan’s military coup was justified under the judiciary’s coined concept of ‘doctrine of necessity’. That set a judicial precedent to topple the democratic government and justify all later military coups. General Ziaul Haq used the judiciary for his personal gain and intoxication of society by a process of ‘Sunniisation’ of Pakistan. He set up shariat courts and legalised many infamous laws like the Hudood law. He also used the court to hang his one-time political master, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. This Gordian knot between the judiciary and military was loosened when General Musharraf challenged the authority of the court and unseated Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from his position of the Chief Justice of Pakistan. For that, General Musharraf had to pay a heavy price. He lost his power and position; now, he is in self-exile.
The main reason for the present political impasse is a clash to establish institutional-cum-personal supremacy over the other. The court wanted the former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to write a letter to the Swiss authorities to reopen the alleged graft cases against the incumbent president, Asif Ali Zardari, while the former was not ready to act against his political boss. Hence, the court disqualified him under the charge of contempt of court.
The verdict of June 20 was another attempt, though an unsuccessful one, to derail democracy. The credit for saving the day must be given to all political parties in the coalition, who not losing their composure, acted democratically instead of giving another political excuse to the military to take over. The political allies of the PPP and even the opposition parties restrained themselves by not making it a big issue, although they raised it, publicised it and criticised the government, which is normal for political parties in any democratic country. In addition, after the verdict, there was a peaceful transition of leadership, where the new Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf replaced Mr Gilani after a few days of the judiciary-instructed melodramatic political cliffhanger.
Taking stock of the parliament-judiciary relationship, it is a given that both have to act as a check and balance influence on each other. As a representative of the people, parliament is considered as the most responsible body because it represents the voice of the people. Members of parliament can be easily removed from power if they fail to act according to the expectations of the people. This is the biggest power people have over their government in a democracy. All other institutions represent meritocracy and do not have to go through the ballot test after a certain fixed period of time. Moreover, there is a set of rules and norms followed by parliament to disqualify its sitting member(s), if he or she fails to carry out the constitutional task bestowed upon them. The authority to do so lies with the speaker, who is the highest authority in parliament and takes decisions after going through constitutional rules and parliamentary norms. The judiciary can interfere only if the judgment of the speaker is being challenged, but unless that happens it cannot — though it can deliver its judgment and request or order parliament to disqualify a sitting member. This process was not followed in Pakistan. The judiciary acted with a missionary zeal and disqualified Mr Gilani, which is nothing but a transcendence of its constitutional power and a visceral attack on the authority of parliament.
If the current political logjam and institutional infighting continues, the new prime minister too is likely to meet the same fate as his predecessor, and the script will be repeated once more. In all this mess, the victor would be the military, which would be probably compelled to interfere on the pretext of saving the nation, though the pointed silence of the army chief, General Pervaiz Kayani, means that he is not interested in taking up the political reins in his hands, but the future can be only analysed, not accurately predicted.
Finally, the future of any country depends upon the wishes of its people. Hence the people of Pakistan have to decide the political fate of Pakistan. And, as a citizen of Pakistan, the Chief Justice cannot shy away from his responsibility to let the people make their own choices.
The writer is a PhD student at the South Asian Studies School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org