Clashes between Pakistan's political institutions are not uncommon. They have been occurring since the early years of the nation's birth, as the first military coup to oust the country's elected government occurred in 1958, just 11 years after the birth of the country itself. Similarly, the most extravagant of these clashes have historically occurred between the military the civilian government, as Pakistan has seen three military coups since its birth, and has been under military rule for nearly half of its existence as a state. But the judiciary, while rarely in the foreground during these clashes, has always played a pivotal role -- it has signed off on every single military coup witnessed in the country thus far, including Pervez Musharraf's coup in 1999.
The current Supreme Court, however, has been much more eager to actively antagonize other political institutions, as Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary and his court continues their assault on the civilian government. Following the conviction of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on April 26th for contempt of court -- a case which stemmed from Gilani's refusal to write a letter to Swiss authorities that would have opened up corruption charges against President Asif Zardari -- and the court's dismissal dismissal of Interior Minister Rehman Malik for allegedly holding dual citizenship, the Supreme Court has now removed Prime Minster Gilani, ruling that his office has effectively remained vacant since his conviction for contempt back in April. Having been the first prime minster removed by the judiciary, this may perhaps be Pakistan's first "soft coup."
It is expected that the court will have similar demands of opening an inquiry against Zardari for the new prime minister as well. Party loyalty in Pakistan, and the fact that Zardari will effectively handpick who the next prime minster is, will likely ensure clashes between the new prime minister and the courts. The two institutions are locked-in for a lengthy altercation.
If the ruling coalition thinks it can rid itself of Chaudhary anytime soon, they are mistaken. The only body that can remove any of the Supreme Court justices from office, including the Chief Justice, is the country's Supreme Judicial Council. The removal of Chaudhary is unlikely, as he is a highly popular figure amongst the legal community. Pervez Musharaf's attempt to use the Judicial Council to remove Chaudhary back in 2007 backfired, largely due to the broad support Chaudhary received from lawyers in an episode that has become known as the "lawyers movement." Five years later, support for Chaudhary amongst the legal community has shown little signs of waning.
With the removal of the activist Chaudhary out of the question, the next elected government in Pakistan will have to wait until December 2013, when Chaudhary is set to retire at the mandatory age of 65, before having the opportunity to replace him. Regardless of what happens over the course of the next eighteen months, Chaudhary's legacy has been cemented. Further confrontation between the court and the Pakistan's Peoples Party, particularly if elections are not called ahead of their 2013 deadline, are assured.
This is a critical juncture for Pakistan. The removal of a prime minister is no trivial matter, and how the country responds will have reverberating affects for the future of the nation. The last critical juncture involving the courts took place in 2007, when Musharraf unsuccessfully tried to remove Chaudhary, inciting the layers movement, which was widely covered by the increasingly active and influential media. This helped shape public opinion against Musharraf, ultimately leading to his political demise. More so, it gave the newly popular Chaudhary -- now an internationally commended figure for standing against an authoritarian regime -- and his court, the soft power and political capital it needed to execute its current activist agenda.
While there may be some merit in the judiciary's quest for accountability and justice, an overly powerful court, which this current judiciary has become, just like any other political institution, does not bode well for Pakistan. This country's tragedy has been an over-concentration of power in single institutions -- most notably the military. If a civilian government ever does have power, dynastic political parties who create policies that are more focused on retaining familial prominence, rather than creating a sustainable country, usually exploit the nation. The country has failed to establish a system of a balance of powers between institutions, and now it is the judiciary that is taking advantage.
Unfortunately for the people of Pakistan, without an acute response from civil society, the media, and the populace at large, Pakistan is headed for perhaps another 18 months of political instability at the least. If Chaudhary's actions set a precedent for future courts, such political chaos will become more and more of the norm. This critical juncture in Pakistan's politics seems destined to further push the country into prolonged turmoil.