In the past several weeks, political developments concerning the Pakistani Constitution – specifically the 18th Amendment – have garnered much media attention in the country. Below though, Usman Zafar, an Islamabad-based producer for Express 24/7, probes this subject further to assess the much deeper divide and conflict between Pakistan’s judiciary and government:
The cat and mouse game between the Supreme Court and the government has just reached new levels. We all knew the Apex Court’s decision to declare the National Reconciliation Ordinance null and void would roll heads, but to see things get to this level is just unnerving, not just for the government, but also for the public, which has grown accustomed to decisions as PR gimmicks in disguise. But the Supreme Court has made it clear that the NRO verdict is anything but a PR stunt and has put the National Accountability Bureau in the hot seat, demanding that action be taken on all the NRO cases, particularly the dreaded Swiss cases pertaining to President Asif Ali Zardari.
As a result, the state’s accountability institutions have gone haywire. NAB, the Law Ministry, and the Attorney General’s Office are in a constant fix, twisting themselves into a corner as they explain the delay in the implementation of the case. Although NAB first said it had sent the letter to the Swiss government to reopen the case, the Attorney General later admitted no letter was sent because of issues with the Law Ministry, a confession that led to his eventual resignation.
The increasing rift between the government and the judiciary has been developing for some time now. The first few blows were struck by the Supreme Court back in 2006, when it decided to open the Pakistan Steel Mills case against the will of the government. It was undoubtedly the reason why Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was removed from his position, then reinstated, then removed again during the November 2007 Emergency, and then reinstated yet again after much internal and external pressure.
The last reinstatement subsequently created bad blood between the judiciary and the government, and whether they like to admit it, the President and the Chief Justice of Pakistan are not each other’s biggest fans. Mr. Chaudhry holds a grudge against the President for refusing to reinstate him until the Lawyers movement took its toll on the government in March 2009. And Mr. Zardari holds a grudge against the Chief Justice for outlawing the very legislation that allowed him to reach the halls of the Presidency. And since both command their respective institutions, an institutional bar brawl of sorts has been taking place for months. We saw it in the NRO verdict. We saw it in the judicial appointments controversy. And now we are seeing it in the Swiss cases follow-up.
The majority of the public sees this as a crucial and necessary process, to purge the state of corrupt practices, and return purity and virtue to the corridors of power.
But the Supreme Court is not taking action against one man. It is taking action against an entire institution, one that has adhered to nefarious actions and unscrupulous practices for far too long, and like any institution, is constantly involved in self-preservation. The biggest proof of this can be seen in the oft-claimed Holy Grail of political achievements, the Constitutional Reforms Package, a bill which promises to end to all political turmoil the country. But while everyone’s talking about Pakhtunkhwa and the 17th amendment, the bill also mentions a reduction in penalties for convicted felons who wish to become public office holders. Under current legislation, anyone who has committed crimes is barred from becoming a public office holder for life. But under the constitutional reforms bill, the life ban will now be shortened to only five years. This essentially means the constitutional reforms package will not only grant amnesty to those who committed crimes in the past, but it will also open the door for felons who wish to become part of our government after just a few years. And we thought the days of the NRO were history!
At the end of the day, institutions will protect themselves, even if it is at the expense of others. And right now, the government is in a fight-or-flight mode on the Swiss cases, and the time for flight is over. There will be a subsequent battle of wills, and when push comes to shove, it is the nation that will suffer the consequences.
Whether or not Zardari gets convicted seems irrelevant compared to the near disastrous ramifications. We are already going through a security crisis, a water shortage, a power shortfall, and imminent food famine, to name a few. Can we really afford a clash of the country’s institutions, even if it is in the name of accountability? Is it worth risking our very stability, when the country is balanced on a knife’s edge?
The truth is that nothing good will come out of this conflict, because it will not end with the return of accountability, but instead institutional chaos, a far more disturbing development. These shockwaves will be felt not just in the corridors of power, but also among the citizens of the country, who will find themselves embroiled in yet another era of instability. This in turn may lead to a kind of political vacuum that typically precede military coups. While I’m not saying bad behavior should not be punished, I do believe that the cost of punishing such behavior is far heavier than we think. We would be naïve to think otherwise.
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