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Pakistan Democracy: Not on the Brink Yet

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There has been much speculation about the future of democracy in Pakistan these days. Prophets of gloom are seeing generals at the ready. Optimists are hoping for a reconciliation. Reality lies between the two extremes. While the military is not ready to stage a coup, there are also fewer chances that things will get back to normal. Something might happen.

It is not the infamous memogate scandal that is rocking the government's boat. It is a face-off with the Supreme Court after the ruling Pakistan People's Party refused to open corruption cases against its co-chairman Asif Zardari, who, ironically, also happens to be the President of Pakistan. The cases are in Swiss courts and have been pending for the last four years. The Swiss prosecutors, citing presidential immunity, have halted the proceedings. The ruling junta is also repeating the same mantra. But the apex court is not ready to accept their stance.

The judges might have relented had it not been a seemingly indignant response from the government. All the judges were asking was a formal plea from the government asserting the presidential immunity. The prime minister and his cronies did not comply with the orders. Now the prime minister has to personally appear before the court to answer a show-cause notice.

If he is unable to present a strong case, the judges might implicate him on charges of contempt of court. This will automatically make him ineligible for his post. He can avoid the embarrassment by complying with the orders, which he is not ready to do. The court might show leniency if the premier offers a valid excuse. All eyes are on the court now that will hold a hearing on January 19.

According to the prime minister's counsel, there would be no harm even if the government follows the court's orders and ask the Swiss to reopen graft cases. Some obscure clause of the Geneva Convention also grants immunity to heads of state, which is the office of the president in Pakistan's case.

Even if the government escapes disaster this time, there is no guarantee it will complete its term. The ruling coalition has agreed on holding early elections. It has little, if any, achievements on its credit. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been laid off in the textile industry alone due to severe energy crisis. There is not enough natural gas to cook food and the once-profitable railway system is breathing its last. Stories of massive corruption doing rounds in local media don't help the government either.

Pakistanis are least likely to re-elect the current regime in case of free and fair elections. This is why some are saying the government is on a suicidal mission. They say the ruling party is deliberately locking horns with the judges and military to achieve "political martyrdom." This will raise its prospects in the coming elections.

Unfortunately, free and fair elections cannot be held under the current setup. In Pakistan, elections are generally held under a caretaker setup to ensure transparency. Zardari will stay at the helm during the process. As I've discussed before, he is violating many constitutional norms.

Technically, the president has to maintain political impartiality and his role is largely ceremonial. Not in Zardari's case who is also the head of the ruling party and is holding political meetings at the presidential palace. He will be the one spearheading his party's election campaign while also keeping his official post. Now who thinks the elections would be fair?

Things will get complicated in the coming months. One thing is clear though. There are no chances of a coup. And that offers a glimmer of hope to the beleaguered Pakistanis.

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