Moderation and restraint is the call of the day
The threat of military takeover, discussed in the political circles on 11 January, has been averted, at least for the time being. However, the civilian federal government faces another threat caused by the Supreme Court’s decision to issue a contempt notice to the prime minister. This has created a very difficult and dangerous political situation. Unless the SC and the prime minister adopt an accommodating disposition towards each other, there is bound to be the much dreaded clash between the elected executive and non-elected SC. This can bring the military back to the centre stage whose disposition will then shape the direction of the political system.
This is the second time that the SC issued a contempt notice to an elected prime minister. It was in 1997 that the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had to face a contempt notice from the SC. It led to a series of unfortunate developments in November-December 1997. Now Yousaf Raza Gilani faces a contempt notice from the SC. There is another more unfortunate incident in our history. In 1979, the SC convicted a former civilian Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for ordering the killing of a person and gave him death sentence which was carried out by the military government on April 4, 1979.
The current trouble between the Supreme Court and the federal executive was brewing for some time because the executive was not willing to comply with some orders of the SC. The options given to the federal government by the SC last week have strong political connotations and turn the federal government into a ‘lame-duck.’
The major sticking point appeared to be the writing of a letter to a magistrate court in Switzerland for reopening of the cases against President Asif Ali Zardari. The federal government maintained that the president had immunity from criminal proceedings and thus it did not write the letter. Though the constitutional provision regarding the immunity of the president from initiating and pursuing criminal proceedings is unambiguous, the Supreme Court wanted the president to seek this immunity from the SC. The federal government did not take the plea of presidential immunity in the Court and sent no reply.
The legal experts would debate the merits of the federal government’s attitude towards the SC or the contempt notice of the SC. The most troubling aspect of this episode is that institutional conflict will jeopardise the future of Pakistan’s nascent democracy.
The Parliament has expressed support for democracy and representative government on 16 January and the coalition partners have also expressed confidence in the federal government. If such a prime minister is convicted by the SC the government circles are likely to express resentment which can set the stage for political conflict.
The prime minister is expected to appear before the SC on 19 January. He needs to outline his position as to why his government did not proceed against the president. If the government wants to invoke president’s immunity, it has to take that position in the Court. However, the Court can still ask why was the response not given earlier? If the Court takes a lenient view, the crisis can be averted.
The change of the prime minister before or after the Court’s final ruling is not going to solve the problem because the latter would continue to mount pressure on the new prime minister after successfully embarrassing a prime minister.
In Pakistan’s polarised political environment, the executive-judiciary conflict is being interpreted by the opposition political parties from their respective partisan angles. The PML(N) is happy that the federal government is in trouble and they would like the prime minister to be convicted by the SC. However, they would prefer that the Court forces the federal government to quit and new elections are announced instantly.
The opposition parties need to adopt a long term perspective. The current situation is so hazardous that if it is not handled carefully, the civilian democratic political system can turn upside down. If they decide to support the SC and seek the ouster of the federal government through street protest, the PPP and allies will counter such a move. This will be the beginning of a crisis which the political forces will not be able to manage.
The SC’s pressure and a head-on political wrangling between the government and the opposition will shift the political initiative to the military. The military, rather than political forces, will decide how the situation is to be addressed. The military has five options available to deal with the situation. It can force a change of leadership from within the ruling coalition to defuse tension. It can convince the political leaders to create a broad-based government for stabilising the situation. The other option is to create an interim government for holding elections. Still another option is to install a government of its choice in the name of implementing the Court decisions while staying in the background.
Such a government can continue for a couple of years. The last option is well-known in Pakistan. It is direct assumption of power by removing the federal and provincial governments, parliament and provincial assemblies. This time it may have to abolish the superior judiciary unless the latter gives a quiet consent in view of exceptional circumstances.
The last option is problematic because the military’s problem is not a “take-over” but what to do the “Day After.” Given Pakistan’s internal crises and difficulties at the international level, the military will find it extremely difficult to sustain power. Direct military rule will have extremely negative implications for Pakistan’s troubled economy and adversely affect the military’s capacity for countering militancy and terrorism. However, it can play the role of a kingmaker with the backing of the Supreme Court by manipulating the divided and weakened political forces. Both can take measures to keep the political leaders under check. All political forces will lose except those willing to be co-opted by the non-elected state institutions.
The need of time is that all state institutions and leaders step back and work towards finding a middle way. No single state institution can effectively manage the affairs of the state. The Supreme Court alone cannot manage the state or rectify all ills of the state and society. Similarly, the executive must respect the judiciary and seek the cooperation of other state institution. Without moderation and restraint the civilian democratic process will collapse.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.