Behind the new methods and names, could Pakistan’s judicial soap opera be a re-run of the same old thing?
|Dictatorial legacy: Ayub Khan, Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, Pervez Musharraf (from left to right)|
A coup by any other name would smell as foul, wouldn’t it? In a country whose political history is the story of uncountable civilians dethroned by military coups, the question of whether the Supreme Court’s ruling to send Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani home was the beginning of the end for another civilian government is not one borne of an over-imaginative or conspiratorial mind. Not here in Pakistan, where unelected forces are always waiting in the wings to ‘rescue’ Pakistanis from their elected leaders.
This time, however, a democratically elected prime minister has not been sent home for the usual reasons. Transparency International claims Pakistan lost USD 94 billion through corruption, tax evasion and bad governance during the four years of Gilani’s tenure, while Gilani’s fingerprints seem to be all over at least three of the most high-profile financial scandals hogging the headlines. But the former prime minister was not handed his walking papers for earning the title of ‘most corrupt prime minister in Pakistan’s history’. Since 2008, when the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) came to power, hundreds have fallen victim to sectarian militant groups around the country, while the numbers for suicide bombings and other incidents of terrorism have only gone up and up. And yet, Gilani wasn’t ousted for failing in his fundamental duty to provide citizens with the protection of life and property promised in the constitution. He wasn’t ousted for not having any answers, as chief executive of the country, to the question of what Osama bin Laden was doing living for years only a stone’s throw away from Pakistan’s elite military academy. He wasn’t ousted because swathes of Pakistan suffer up to 22 hours of power outages everyday, forcing industries to shut down and pushing rioters to clash with the police and burn properties across the country.
Instead, Gilani was ousted because he refused to send a written request to Swiss authorities asking that they reopen decades-old corruption investigations against his boss, the co-chairperson of the PPP and the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari.
Many Pakistani and most Swiss lawyers agree that at this point, it would be nearly impossible to revive the Swiss cases against Zardari. His constitutional immunity as head of state and Switzerland’s statute of limitations – under which Zardari’s case expires this year – combine to ensure that the gesture of writing the letter would have been a worthless one.
And yet, this very meaningless letter has pushed Pakistan’s judges and leaders into a battle to their deaths, ended up felling one prime minister, and left another, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, living out of a suitcase, waiting for the next Supreme Court ruling to send him home. In the meantime, opposition parties have exploited the crisis to mount pressure on Zardari to call general elections before the government’s term expires in March 2013.
In the Turkish bath
There is no doubt that the country’s already fragile political system has been jolted. Will the whole system be derailed? Will the Supreme Court's wild pursuit of politicians and the government’s intransigence mean that the transition to democracy will come unstuck? What in the world does either the government or the judiciary stand to gain from it all?
In a new Pakistan, where power had devolved from the old centres and the powerful army-led establishment was no longer setting all the rules, there was room for everyone – the media, the judiciary, the civilian leadership – to flex their muscles and stake their claims. In the second coming, you could redefine yourself, be whoever you wanted to be.
The ideal way for the PPP-led government to mark its territory in this brave new world would have been to embark on a mission of good governance and development; to wrest control of security and strategic policy from the generals; to focus on rural areas, which it has always neglected; to pay attention to burgeoning problems in the energy sector; and so on – in essence, to prove that it was a government of the people and for the people.
But the PPP did not seize that chance. The government seemed resolved to drive itself onto the rocks. It plundered, it looted, it disobeyed, it violated, it prevaricated, it misruled. It did whatever it took to get to the end of its five years as a full-term government and fight for re-election.
That the PPP decided to take this route had much to do with the personality and the personal philosophy of its man-in-charge, Asif Ali Zardari. “Every superhero, or for that matter, super villain, has a superpower: the president’s is that he knows how to bring people down to his level,” one of Zardari’s closest aides said of him. “Aur app ko pata hai, hamman mein sab he nangay hotay hain.” (And you know, everyone is naked in the Turkish bath.)
In the hammam that is Pakistani politics, everything and everyone has a price. Indeed, who wins in a system where everyone is corrupt and only money talks? The one with the most money, of course. And so, some allege, while he still could, the president used all the money in the state kitty to maintain his base, bleed it for votes and buy every constituency politician, general and judge willing to be bought. In Zardari’s calculation, it seems this politics of give-and-take is what successful politics meant in a new Pakistan ripe with opportunity.
And when it comes to the Supreme Court, the president is even more a victim of this pop psychology. To a Zardari who never forgives nor forgets, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry – the chief justice of Pakistan, the relentless pursuer of the Swiss case against the president – could only be driven by the spirit of vengeance. The president had, after all, resisted reinstating Chaudhry’s as chief justice after Musharraf sacked him, so the chief judge must now have a personal score to settle. In a game where survival was the only goal, giving in was not an option.
Did the president miscalculate? Yes, because post-Musharraf, and after the lawyer’s movement that catapulted the media and the judiciary onto the grand stage of power politics, the chief justice was as invested as Zardari in staking out a place for himself in this new Pakistan. After emerging as a household name and gaining international recognition in 2007 for standing up to Pervez Musharraf, the chief justice, even more so than Zardari, resolved that no military ruler or civilian leader would ever again tell him what to do. If that meant taking on the unpopular government over allegations of corruption, then so be it. If that meant earning the ire of the ever-powerful military by questioning it about enforced disappearances and the transgressions of intelligence agencies, then that was a risk the chief justice was willing to take. And by this calculus, the conviction and ouster of a democratically elected prime minister was a small price to pay to get across the message that Pakistan was at long last a country where the courts prevailed.
But one man’s hero is another man’s gun-slinging judge. Pakistan is now divided, in the words of a Reuters journalist, on the question of whether the chief justice’s “relentless pursuit of a money-laundering case against the president is teaching a generation of the country's leaders a long-overdue lesson in respect for the law,” or if his “turbo-charged brand of activism threatens to upend the power balance underpinning Pakistan's precarious embrace of democracy.”
For those who pick the former option, the chief justice is merely holding corrupt and inept politicians to account. But the chief justice’s detractors are quick to point to how the Supreme Court handled last month’s accusations by a real estate tycoon who claimed that he paid USD 3.7 million in bribes to the chief justice’s son. Investigation into the scandal has been brushed aside by the apex court, handed over to a federal accountability agency, and for all practical purposes stands stalled. The court has certainly not pursued the case with the same degree of consistency and obstinacy that it did, for instance, the ‘Memogate’ case involving Pakistan’s former ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, who allegedly lobbied the United States government to save the Zardari government from a military coup after Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan. To the chief justice’s detractors, then, he has mastered the art of selective justice.
And, of course, there’s also the most controversial theory of them all: that the generals are behind the idea that the Supreme Court use ‘constitutional’ methods to go after the government where unconstitutional ones, such as direct military intervention, would prove too risky and counterproductive.
Can Pakistan’s brittle political system survive these attacks from multiple ends: a mud-slinging media, an incompetent and intransigent government, a double-dealing army and a megalomaniacal judiciary? If the last few years have been about the realignment of powers, will this lead to something positive – or worse?
In this new Pakistan, the time for military coups has certainly passed. The media, the people and even the judges, much as they might hate this government, have all come out clearly against extra-constitutional measures, making it infinitely harder for the army to go for an overt capture of power.
Even Zardari’s government seems safe for now, given that real power in Pakistan rests in the office of the president even as the law tells us the prime minister is the boss. Thus, while prime minister after prime minister may be ousted, the system will trudge along for as long as the court doesn’t decide to go for the nuclear option: target the PPP top boss himself, the one who originally dishonoured his oath by forbidding his prime ministerial lackeys from writing that dreaded Swiss letter.
But having said that, even if direct military intervention is out, what is a real and imminent possibility is that the judges support a technocrat-heavy caretaker setup endorsed by the army – one that may take its saviour role a tad too seriously and decide to overstay its mandated 90-day welcome. More than ousted prime ministers and military rule, then, it is this possibility that threatens to push the new Pakistan back into the grave of the old.
So while the judges get down to the task of deciding what to do next, here’s some advice: There are several ways to get rid of a government. Let the people try the never-been-tried-before way: vote it out.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)