The prime ego

The political crisis that engulfed Pakistan in November-December overshadowed all other matters in this country for weeks on end. Some saw it as a rank tussle for power between the judiciary and the executive, others as the last stand of a principled judge against a dictator-in-waiting. Either way, the Prime Minister came out on top, notwithstanding the fact that the President sided with the judge.

The solution was hailed as having come from "within the democratic system" rather than from outside. Until the last uncertain, tension-fraught minute, there were strong rumours of an army takeover, and the relief that this didn´t happen was palpable. The immediate crisis may be over, but surely there are more like it waiting in the wings, although for the moment nothing seems to clutter the horizon for the Prime Minister.

How Nawaz Sharif proposed to rule was clear enough already when, utilising his massive and unprecedented parliamentary majority, he rammed an anti-terrorist bill through Parliament in mid-August. The Anti-Terrorist Act 1997 (ATA) gave police unprecedented extra-judicial powers, to even kill suspected terrorists, while the special courts to be set up will not have the same safeguards for defendants as do regular courts.

In pushing through this bill as with other dire actions of the executive, the only obstacle in its way seemed to be Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah. In July 1997, he initiated public hearings into the killings in Karachi and the Shia-Sunni violence in Punjab. Later, he summoned government representatives to report to him on what action had been taken. Justice Shah said the judiciary would not remain a "silent spectator" as the conditions deteriorated.

The introduction of the ATA only exacerbated the tension between the judiciary and the executive. In reaction to the bill, the Pakistan Law Commission suggested measures to strengthen the existing judicial system (including strengthening the police investigative branch) and warned against establishing a "parallel court system".

Sharif chose to ignore the warnings and the recommendations, and instead challenged the Chief Justice head on, by downsizing the number of judges in the Supreme Court. From then on, matters spiralled out of control, with all sorts of unprecedented situations arising almost daily. Sharif faced contempt of court charges; Justice Shah was "de-seated" by a parallel court of his fellow judges; ruling party goons attacked the Supreme Court building in full view of satellite tv cameras; the President sided with the Chief Justice… The lengthy drama culminated with the resignation of President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari and Justice Shah, due to retire in February 1998 anyway, going on leave.

This fracas cost the country dearly in economic terms, with foreign exchange reserves alone dropping USD 300 million in two weeks of the crisis. But a greater damage was done in terms of the people´s confidence upon the ruling institutions, already in tatters over years of dictatorships and political instability. This latest round had nothing to do with institutions or issues: a matter of egos, a clash of personalities had taken the country to the brink. Those representing the different organs of state obviously did not feel bound by the limits of their authority. As one analyst noted, the powerful failed to realise " that precedents set in the years of dictatorship could not be followed in a period of democracy, however imperfect it might be."

As it is, the checks and balances are weak in Pakistan. Now, with two of the personalities gone, who will rein in Nawaz Sharif? The Prime Minister, with a Parliament eating out of his hand, had no need to ride rough shod as he did recently. Will he get worse, or will he reform, now that his ego is satiated?

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Himal Southasian