Pakistani institutions are evolving rapidly. With executive authority increasingly in the hands of elected representatives, rather than dispersed among various competing institutions, the political establishment has been revitalized – and it has taken three important steps toward strengthening democracy and the rule of law.
Is Pakistan, a country long prone to military coups, finally developing a well-functioning political system? On Nov. 27, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain – acting on the advice of the prime minister, as the constitution dictates – announced that Gen. Raheel Sharif would succeed Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as chief of army staff, even though Sharif was not among the favored candidates of the military establishment. Unlike Kayani – who has directed the Directorate-General of Military Operations and the Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan’s spy agency) – Sharif has not served in any of the positions that typically prepare someone to lead Pakistan’s best-funded and most influential institution.
This was not Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first act of defiance against the military. Just days earlier, he had asked the Supreme Court to appoint a three-judge special tribunal to investigate charges of treason against Pakistan’s former president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for imposing emergency military rule and suspending the constitution in November 2007.
The decision to impose military rule, which Musharraf claimed was intended to stabilize the country and stem the tide of Islamist extremism, facilitated the removal of dozens of senior judges from the Supreme Court and the provincial high courts – including Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s highest-ranking judge.
Chaudhry’s suspension the previous March, following his refusal to bow to government pressure to resign, had incited relentless protests by Pakistan’s legal community and had made him a symbol of the people’s desire for a fairer, more independent judicial system. In a sense, this movement of protest, which contributed to Musharraf’s electoral defeat the following February and the return of democracy to Pakistan, prefigured the 2010-11 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, both of which helped spark the Arab Spring.
Musharraf will be tried under Article 6 of Pakistan’s constitution, which says “any person who abrogates or subverts or suspends or holds in abeyance ... the Constitution by use of force or show of force or by any other unconstitutional means shall be guilty of high treason.” Parliament has defined high treason as a capital offense.
By appointing a special tribunal to try Musharraf, the Sharif government is sending a strong signal to the military – particularly to the institution’s senior commanders – that they are not above the law. This message is especially important now, given the doubts about the government’s resolve stemming from its decision last June to drop high-treason charges against Musharraf for leading, while he was serving as chief of army staff, the coup in 1999 against the elected government, which was headed by Sharif himself.
The Pakistani government’s third move to tame the military was the announcement that Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, the Supreme Court’s second most senior judge, would succeed Chaudhry, who was reinstated in 2009, after his mandatory retirement this year. (Jillani will serve for only seven months before he, too, is scheduled to retire.) By establishing the seniority rule for the most important Supreme Court appointment, Sharif has effectively depoliticized the process.
These three moves promise, at long last, to establish civilian control over the military and ensure judicial independence. This would put Pakistan on sounder political footing than several other large Muslim countries, which are currently engaged in similar – but far less successful – efforts to institute more accountable governance.
For example, in Bangladesh, the executive – namely Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League government – is attempting to monopolize political power. The judiciary already does the bidding of the executive; if current plans succeed, the ruling party will soon come to dominate the country’s legislature as well.
Although the Bangladeshi military is watching events unfold with some apprehension, it lacks the will to install a caretaker government, as it did in 2007. At the time it had brought peace and stability to the country by establishing a nonpartisan technocratic administration. Unfortunately, unlike Sharif’s actions in Pakistan, this effort did not spur the development of a more stable political order.
In Egypt, supporters of the democratically elected President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood are still battling the army and the security forces, which deposed him in July. With the liberal opposition apparently unable to create a political organization capable of challenging the Muslim Brotherhood within a recognized framework – and, indeed, having largely supported the military coup – Egypt’s fate is increasingly being decided on the street.
Even in Turkey, where the rule of law has been relatively strong and the constitution well established, the Turkish opposition has failed to organize a credible political party capable of garnering broad public support.
Thanks to the efforts of Sharif’s government, Pakistan now has reasonably well-developed political parties, which compete in regularly scheduled elections. It also has an autonomous judiciary capable of defending the constitution. And it has a military that appears to have accepted civilian control. After nearly seven decades of tumult, Pakistan may soon serve as a model for other large Muslim countries in other parts of the world.
Shahid Javed Burki, a former finance minister of Pakistan and vice president of the World Bank, is currently chairman of the Institute of Public Policy in Lahore. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).