STATE institutions and the relations between them are back in the news but it’s difficult to interpret what it all means at the moment. President Zardari, Gen Kayani and Chief Justice Chaudhry have all spoken publicly in the space of a day about what is best for Pakistan going forward and the first question is whether they have all said the same thing, i.e. that the constitutional order needs to be protected and strengthened, or if they have hinted at some underlying conflict that could boil over in the weeks and months ahead. When President Zardari spoke on Sunday of “the dying kicks of the old order” and of some threats still existing against parliament, was he painting a picture of slow but meaningful progress in the democratic order or was he obliquely warning of new dangers? Should the emphasis in Gen Kayani’s statement be on his reference to moving forward with “consensus” or on his warning that “conspiracy theories” and “rumours” were trying to drive an “unacceptable” wedge between the public and the armed forces and between the leadership of the armed forces and the rank and file? And was Chief Justice Chaudhry’s statement that it is the responsibility of the Supreme Court to ensure the “supremacy of the constitution in connection with the actions of state institutions and authorities” a routine reiteration of a line that the judiciary has consistently taken under Chief Justice Chaudhry or a pregnant comment aimed at other institutions?
If the questions are many and the answers few at the moment, it is because of the unfortunate history and nature of institutional power in Pakistan. What is clear is that the old order is crumbling at the edges. New power centres — the judiciary, the media, an increasingly informed and vocal public, and even the political class — are jostling for space and trying to exert their newfound influence. So far, while forward movement in the democratic project has been halting it is also very real — the various power centres have avoided a truly destabilising clash that could take the country back to square one. Perhaps, then, it is a sign of progress that sniping between institutions through public speeches and press releases is as far as things go before common sense prevails and all sides back down temporarily.
Perhaps also this is the way forward: a messy system in which no institution enjoys predominance and all fight for space. But the ghosts of the past have not truly been exorcised either. Which is why the alarm bells start ringing when elliptical warnings, and threats, are brandished. The days ahead will reveal more.