As Pakistan’s talks with NATO over transit to Afghanistan are deadlocked and the Pakistani parliamentary system is struggling to stabilize, the country recently received a knock from inside.
In what amounted to a judicial coup d’etat, the country’s Supreme Court barred Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani from office based on his conviction for contempt of court. The court threw the government into disarray, jeopardized domestic political relationships, cast a shadow over the country’s fiscal stability and complicated Pakistan’s exceedingly difficult foreign policy choices. The court’s instructions to President Asif Ali Zardari “to ensure continuation of the democratic process through parliamentary system of government” – language ironic in tone if not intent – implicitly called for fresh elections, even while political authority was far from clear.
This unprecedented judicial action reflected a governance crisis that has been years in the making, the result of intra-governmental disputes raised to the level of war and political conflicts that brook no mediation.
The chief justice of Pakistan, appointed years ago by General Pervez Musharraf, has increasingly interpreted judicial oversight to mean activism to the point of intrusion in the daily affairs of government. The Supreme Court – known previously for only retrospective valor by ruling on the wrongdoings of governments after they were long gone – has pursued its own transparency campaign, examining all the daily doings of the state, challenging the price of sugar, the running of cities and the activities of paramilitary bodies.
Politicians and intelligence agents, government ministers and party chiefs, local officials and company heads now populate the courthouse steps, called by a chief justice who seems to single-handedly want to save Pakistan from itself by publicizing every allegation of malfeasance, including those he brings himself.
Removing the prime minister is a well-honed practice of military leaders, not judges. Gillani was convicted for refusing to act against Zardari on issues related to past accusations of corruption. He couched his political choice in terms of protecting the constitutional prerogatives of the presidency – a stance contested by opposition parties, whose petitions against him were upheld. The Supreme Court, unsurprisingly, worded its judgment as ensuring the fundamental rights of citizens “in all matters of public importance.”
These are hard positions to uphold. The sitting People’s Party government, once insistently populist and egalitarian, is saddled with profound public disenchantment over corruption and incompetence. News headlines underscore the depth of discontent: Bomb blasts haunt cities and countryside alike, hated drones circle the borderland skies, funds are limited, and electrical power is so scarce that countrywide protest demonstrations have been held since last summer. Karachi’s armed groups have set the city afire, killing thousands, while political infighting has left many Pakistanis and outside observers fearing for national stability.
Even so, this is the moment that some in Pakistan chose to embark on a journey to bring more democracy, not less. In the past two years, an otherwise vitriolic and obstructionist Parliament passed constitutional amendments that could, under more salubrious circumstances, further representative government. It has begun to reform electoral administration and judicial appointments, and is trying to equalize the assets and governance of Pakistan’s provinces. More pointedly – and ruefully, given the Supreme Court’s judgment – Parliament curbed the over-reaching powers of the president, who in earlier times would have been the instrument for dismissing Parliament.
The tough standards imposed by the court may be welcomed by some, but by its own judgment the court has also weakened the parliamentary sovereignty that was the aim of these reforms. Clearly, political progress is not linear, and the government’s mixed messages have set Pakistan politically adrift.
These efforts are visible in the conduct of foreign policy, an arena certain to be increasingly problematic in the near future. Pakistan’s civilian leaders have raised their voices as active and disputatious interlocutors on regional affairs and, by gradually removing foreign affairs from the almost exclusive domain of the military, have vested sovereignty more firmly in Parliament. Complicated as this has been for making and executing policy, it seemed to hold some promise for the country’s political prospects, particularly if rights-respecting democracy were the result.
But the court judgment on Gillani – which embarrassed the government and eroded public trust in politics, as it already had in the courts – left Pakistan confronting new domestic complexities just when its foreign relationships have become more troubling.
Many in Pakistan believe that U.S. pressure stemming from disputes over Afghanistan risk the hard-won role of civilians in foreign policy. That fear, rather than any one policy disagreement, led Parliament to demand apologies for the deaths of military personnel, argue about transit fees across the Afghan border and protest drone raids.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is transactional on both sides, and the corrosive effects of war certainly argue for change. When things go awry, as they have once again, it is easy for Islamabad to assume that U.S. criticism is intended to hamstring Parliament and weaken politics. The result – holding partnership for ransom, vocal U.S. impatience with Pakistan and the subsequent suspension of negotiations – leads to mutual contempt, not respect.
No one expects the U.S. to close the door on Pakistan, or that Pakistan’s government, despite its complaints about its overbearing ally, really wants that to happen. U.S. interests are based on Pakistan’s utility – for assistance in NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, access to resources and a location inevitably described as “strategic” – but also fears that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, tactical carelessness regarding extremism, and intermittent, strategic regional belligerence will breed uncontrollable global dangers. Pakistan and the U.S. have profited selectively from this understanding for decades.
The Supreme Court’s opinion muddied the waters by challenging Pakistan’s delicate civil-military balance, casting doubt on the neutrality and impartiality of the courts, and testing the fundamental constitutional relationships among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.
For all its verbal obeisance to democracy, the court forced the country into yet another domestic crisis when it had yet to muster the tools to solve its pressing foreign policy problems. With elections in both the U.S. and Pakistan poised to change their terms of engagement, one more misstep could be costly indeed.
Paula Newberg is the Marshall B. Coyne Director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright © 2012, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.