Pakistan Collapsing from Within
June 27, 2012 / Javid Ahmad
This article was published in the CNN.com.
Tensions that flare between Pakistan's ineffective civilian government and influential judiciary reached an all-time high last week when the country’s Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from holding office.
The unprecedented ruling came less than two months after Gilani was charged with contempt for his refusal to ask the Swiss government to reopen corruption charges facing President Asif Ali Zardari. It was followed days later by parliament electing a replacement, Raja Pervez Ashraf, who has also been accused of corruption in the past.
These recent developments signify the deep rift between Pakistan's different internal institutions. Pakistan’s civilian government, the powerful military, the increasingly active judiciary, and the many opposition groups in the country are juggling varied and often deeply conflicting agendas.
One thing these internal forces have in common is that each wants to be at the center stage of Pakistan's political structure, and each wants to win the frustrated population's support. The cost of this power struggle, however, seems to be given little consideration by the players involved.
After Gilani was convicted, the speaker of Pakistan's parliament maintained that only parliament had the authority to disqualify Gilani from his post. But this did not stop the judiciary from ordering the Election Commission to declare him ineligible.
Both sides say they are defending Pakistan's nascent democracy, a claim that is also generously thrown around by members of other groups, including the influential military and the loud opposition. But by convicting a sitting prime minister, the Supreme Court has strongly challenged a long-standing unofficial tenet in Pakistan: those who rule are above the rule of law.
However, there is also the question of whether it is really the duty of the Supreme Court to take up a cause of dubious constitutional validity. (If Gilani had acquiesced to the court's demand to call on Swiss authorities, he would have directly violated the constitution, which clearly stipulates presidential immunity.)
The worry is that the court is overstepping its bounds and encroaching on to parliament and executive territory. The move, dubbed by some as a "judicial coup," is just another example of an unelected body directly challenging a democratically elected government in a fledgling democracy.
It would be imprudent to say that one side or the other is evidently right. But what is evident is what this conflict represents: a Pakistani state that is being pulled in different directions by internal forces catering to conflicting agendas, and where it is increasingly unclear where the real decision-making power rests. Gilani's removal in such turbulent times only intensifies the inter-institutional standoff that has characterized much of Pakistan's history.
Now what does all this mean for Pakistan and its allies?
This internal spectacle will likely affect negotiations with the U.S. over pressing issues such as the reopening of NATO supply routes. If the civilian government wants to make any serious concessions, the opposition will likely criticize the government and add to its already deep unpopularity. The government might then let the fear of this backlash impact their decision-making.
Also, the step taken by the Supreme Court epitomizes a wider, dangerous and historical trend in Pakistan: weak civilian governments find it difficult to command legitimacy and are constantly challenged by other internal institutions.
History repeats itself all the time in Pakistan, and this is not a good sign for a country where the average time an elected government stays in power is less than two years. In a relatively stable democracy, several institutions serve as checks and balances on one another. Pakistan, however, is a land of extremes — scarcely anything survives in the country without morphing into a dangerously virulent version of itself. The government is getting weaker and more ineffective, the judiciary is taking its activism up a notch, the opposition is getting louder and more obstructive by the minute, and so on.
In a country facing an economic crisis, an energy crisis and a growing population that far outstrips available resources, internal political strife is a time-consuming, distracting and often dangerous business.
In Pakistan, the news of Gilani's dismissal made it amply clear that the general population has gradually lost hope over the past decade. Hardly anyone seemed shocked, and not many cared either way.
"It means nothing," one becomes used to hearing. "Someone else will come in and do an equally terrible job."
Many people took to the streets over electricity shortages, not because the prime minister — considered by many to be a mere figurehead — was removed from office.
Such apathy is bad news for any country. But in all this chaos, there is still the opportunity to learn. Pakistani leaders should ponder that.
Editor’s note: Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul, is program coordinator with the Asia program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Mashail Malik, a native of Islamabad, is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Javid Ahmad and Mashail Malik.