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Pakistan's Institutional Troubles

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When Pakistan's Supreme Court decided to pursue charges of contempt against the country's prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, it was cognizant of the attention a clash between the judicial and executive branch would bring to the teetering democratic country. Sitting prime ministers have never been charged before, and Gilani was only the second to ever even testify before the Supreme Court. The judiciary's pursuit of Gilani, commanded by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, was a deliberate attempt at establishing the court as a formidable political institution. Pakistan, after all, is a country where no institution, aside from the military, has demonstrated proficient strength, and the operators of the constitutional government -- the executive, legislative, and judicial branches -- have constantly jockeyed to define their roles in a state that has struggled to create a sustainable form of democracy.

Pakistan's democracy is untenable, as military coups and dictators, who have ruled over the nation for more than two-thirds of its existence, have frequently interrupted the democratic process. When the dictators are gone and democracy has a real chance to flourish, different political actors are eager to ascertain themselves and their institutions -- whether it is their party or branch of government -- as the authentic stewards of democracy. They want you to believe that the reason for the country's travails are because their institutions have not been allowed to properly reign.

Such rhetoric and approach is common in political parties throughout the world, and even Pakistan's parties are constantly defining themselves as the true upholders of the constitution. But what separates this political environment is that the same rhetoric and belief has found its way into the various bodies of government. Just this past week, a member of the National Assembly declared that Parliament was the supreme institution of the country, failing to understand that the government is designed to have balances between each of the different branches.

The recent fiasco involving the Supreme Court and the prime minister is yet another example of this struggle to define and establish these institutions as the true path to democracy. Chief Justice Chaudhary, who was notoriously removed from his position by then-President Pervez Musharraf in 2007, only to be reinstated after waves of protests by Pakistan's legal community and international condemnation, is particularly zeroed in on solidifying the role of the courts in Pakistan's democracy. Having seen the judiciary overthrown by the president firsthand, Chaudhary and the Supreme Court, eager to exert their influence, have been on an unprecedented streak in aggressively confronting not only the civilian government and prime minister, but also the country's much vaunted intelligence agency, the ISI -- which has operated with free reign over since its establishment. Additionally, they have been eager to create judicial commissions to investigate a host of issues that traditionally do not fall within the judiciary's domain.

When the court first initiated charges against the prime minister, it was reasonable to assume that its intent was noble -- an endeavor to force the PM to write to the Swiss government to open up a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari. Political corruption has long plagued Pakistan, and information from a Swiss investigation conducted 10 years ago was critical in determining if Zardari partook in illegal activities at the expense of the state.

The decision from the court, however, demonstrated that Chaudhary and company were simply trying to establish their strength as an institution over the civilian government, rather than seeking justice and the truth. While the PM was found guilty of contempt, there was effectively no punishment, questioning the Supreme Court's motive to pursue the elected government so vigorously in the first place. If the court was content to end exactly where it started off, with no substantial evidence to investigate Zardari and having failed to establish a precedent of consequences when disobeying the courts, why the prolonged battle against the government? What was the court really trying to do aside from establishing its own supremacy as an institution?

Pakistan has massive institutional problems that trickle down and plague the rest of the country. There has always been friction between the military and the elected government, but we now also see friction between the different components of the formal, constitutional branches of government. This dissension does not consist of the expected, partisan differences that are common in democracies. Rather, friction in Pakistan is between the different institutions of government. As long as this contention continues, and as long as leaders of these institutions are more concerned with solidifying their power, rather than properly governing, Pakistan will continue on its current trajectory of calamity.