The decision by Pakistan’s Surpeme Court to disqualify and remove former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani from office has many speculating whether Pakistan’s Supreme Court usurped its power in what amounts to a “judicial dictatorship.”
While potentially problematic in the long-term, the ongoing battle between the government and the civilian courts highlights how far Pakistan has come. Further, the dramatic turn of events, the dismissal of Gilani, didn’t arouse any large scale protests despite the fact that the cabinet was also nullified. Instead, as The Economist points out, “No one came out in support of Mr. Gilani. Rather, the day of the ruling was marked by continuing violent protests across Punjab, the most heavily populated province, over the crippling shortages of electricity that are the most obvious failure of the government to deal with issues that matter. Parliament, however, remains intact, and Mr. Zardari has the means to form a new government led by his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).”
At the heart of the case is the fact that Gilani had been found guilty of contempt of court for not investigating fraud alegations against President Asif Ali Zardari. Having been found guilty of contempt, Iftikhar Chaudhry, Pakistan’s top judge ruled that because he was essentially a convict he was disqualified from serving as Pakistan’s prime minister. Chaudhry suggested, “He has also ceased to be the prime minister of Pakistan with effect from the same date and the office of the prime minister shall be deemed to be vacant accordingly.” For Pakistan, a country all too familiar with military coups under one pretext or another, and sectarian clashes likely at any given moment, one would expect that any institutions within Pakistan would tread lightly.
Further, few Pakistanis have forgotten their bitter past as each military coup was subsequently validated by the Judiciary branch. Perhaps one explanation for the Chief Justice exercising his power in removing Gilani from office is that the Chief Justice’s son, Arsalan Chowdhary, has been accused of accepting bribes from a business tycoon and this was an attempt to shift the focus away from his own political problems.
The Supreme Court’s decision to disqualify Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has drawn it’s fare-share of criticism, not out of any sympathy or favour or appreciation for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) but because of what it portends for Pakistan’s fledging-democracy. As an editorial in The Dawn newspaper argues:
Legally there might have been a case against the prime minister, but it was best for the supreme judiciary not to have waded so deep into such obviously political waters. Even at a later stage, it could have let the speaker’s ruling — which has the backing of a parliamentary resolution — stand. If that was not possible, it could have declared her ruling unacceptable and referred the matter to the Election Commission rather than simply asking that body to issue a denotification. Even if the outcome had ultimately been the same, at least the court would not have taken on the role of directly disqualifying an elected prime minister. By doing so, it has both disrupted an existing democratic set-up and set a worrying precedent for the future.
Questioning the decision to ask the Election Commission to notify Gilani’s disqualification instead of just referring the matter to it, the Supreme Court has ‘both disrupted an existing democratic mechanism and set a worrying precedent for the future’ as The Dawn notes. The disqualification of Gilani will not affect the government as the PPP has elected Raja Pervez Ashraf as Pakistan’s new prime minister following Gilani’s ouster expressing its determination to complete the balance of the term which ends in March 2013.
The decision to disqualify Gilani from office highlights the long-running political battles that have been ongoing between the government and judges. Critics of the current government highlight that Pakistan’s Supreme Court is the only institution willing to confront the Zardari government which has been accused of corruption and graft.
However, as this latest episode plays out over the coming months this only highlights the tenious nature of Pakistan’s nascent democracy. With the United States expected to leave Pakistan’s neighbor, Afghanistan, in the next few years, there is a renewed onus on Pakistan to get its political house in order so that it does not collapse once the Karzai government is left to its own devices and violence is expected to increase in both countries as a result. Pakistan cannot overcome its ongoing struggle for democracy without having a harmonious relationship between the government and the judicial system. This ought to be a good lessons-learned for both institutions.