Pakistan's myriad challenges |
Arab News - 22 June, 2012
It would seem a powerful and well-developed political system, whose Supreme Court could effectively fire a prime minister, for refusing to carry out its instructions to prosecute the president. This is what has happened in Pakistan, where on the surface at least, the separation of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary appears to be working.
It is not however quite that simple. Pakistan’s top judge, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has long been in conflict with President Asif Ali Zardari and his Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, both of whom are from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
The president stands accused of corruption and for four years Gilani has been thwarting efforts by the courts, to mount a prosecution. Now Gilani himself has been found guilty of contempt, by protecting his chief. In an unprecedented move, Chief Justice Chaudhry at the Supreme Court has fired Gilani and banned him from being an MP for five years.
There has been widespread popular support for the judiciary’s action, which was why it quickly became clear that the president was not going to challenge his prime minister’s dismissal. Rioting is never far from the surface in the country, and the public mood is highly volatile at the moment, with substantial riots in the Punjab over the almost constant lack of electricity.
Zardari, the widower of the late Benazir Bhutto, is too experienced a politician to risk the sort of widespread unrest that might yet give the military an excuse to march back into the country’s politics. So he nominated Makhdoom Shahabuddin to be his next prime minister. However, within hours of the announcement, the chief justice ordered Shahabuddin’s arrest on charges that he imported an illegal drug when he was health minister.
There will be those who are now wondering if the country’s top judge has not over-played his hand, by almost immediately seeking to frustrate the president’s attempt to find a new premier. This is not some parlor game. Pakistan has problems aplenty and needs a functioning government to try and tackle them. As long as there is no replacement to Gilani, the country will endure even more dangerous drift.
It might very well be wondered why Chaudhry did not wait to see if Shahabuddin would comply with the Supreme Court’s orders in relation to the president’s corruption investigation, where his predecessor had so clearly failed. Could it be that Chaudhry wished to pre-empt Parliament, which meets today to consider the president’s premiership nominee ?
If this is indeed the case, then the chief justice will be seen by many to have overstepped the mark, perhaps because he has allowed his personal feelings toward the president and the PPP to cloud his legal judgment.
The bottom line is that it is for Parliament, not the courts, to make the final choice on a prime minister and his or her Cabinet. It is for the courts to uphold the law, including the laws made by Parliament, laws which apply equally to every citizen, be he a porter, a president, prime minister, or even a chief justice.
Popular though Chaudhry’s sacking of Gilani may have been, the judiciary has too crucial a balancing role in the Pakistani state, to be seen to lose its impartiality. For years judges and lawyers were marginalized, even ridiculed. However, just because they are now being accorded their proper due and respect, does not mean that they can start to step beyond their clear brief, which is to uphold the law, without fear or favor.
Pakistan’s myriad challenges, the uneven security situation, the presence of the Taleban along the border regions with Pakistan, rising ethnic tensions in the Punjab, centered on Karachi, deteriorating relations with its allies, not least the United States, an uneasy and discontented military and a collapsing economy, are problems enough and require a fully-functioning government.
Corruption and incompetence have stalked the corridors of power in Pakistan, ever since partition from India. In times past, the courts have sometimes seemed caught up in the payola. However, since the restoration of democracy in 2009, judges have earned back considerable esteem and influence.
That respect should now be fostered and retained, not squandered over the single issue of an allegedly corrupt president, an issue on which there are strong grounds for believing that, very mistakenly, the chief justice’s personal feelings have become involved.