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No respite

June 28, 2012

FOR those hoping against hope for a respite in the confrontation between the judiciary and the PPP-led federal government, there was instead more grim news on Wednesday. In Lahore, the high court gave the president until Sept 5 to quit his political activities while occupying the presidency — or else risk an adverse order from the court.

Meanwhile, in Islamabad, the Supreme Court has given Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf until July 12 to explain his position on the full implementation of the court’s December 2009 NRO judgment — the same verdict that led to Yousuf Raza Gilani’s downfall as prime minister after he refused to write the so-called Swiss letter.

Setting aside the legal rationale for the latest moves by the superior judiciary for a minute, a view is gaining currency that the superior judiciary is single-mindedly pursuing the government to the point where its functioning becomes impossible. While this may not be true, that such an impression is gaining ground is to the detriment of the democratic project here, particularly when a general election is within touching distance.

Take the issue of the president continuing as co-chairman of the PPP while serving as head of state, a role that is commonly understood to be apolitical in nature. While Mr Zardari’s choice to politicise the office of the presidency isn’t the wisest, the political class as a whole is hardly up in arms over it. Particularly after the 18th Amendment, the president’s role is largely ceremonial — so, even if ethically questionable, in concrete terms it matters little if an active politician is installed in that office.

Moreover, with the PPP being the lead coalition partner in Islamabad, Mr Zardari enjoys pre-eminence over any PPP-elected official — be it the prime minister or someone else who were to take Mr Zardari’s presidential office. As Mr Gilani has demonstrated — and Prime Minister Ashraf may soon demonstrate — when Mr Zardari wants his party members to do something for him, they do it. In any case, how is the court going to police whether the presidency is being used for narrow party purposes or not? Will it bar the president from meeting PPP officials or coalition allies? That would possibly amount to an unconstitutional bar on presidential activities.

Similarly, after Mr Gilani fell on his sword, it is all but impossible for another PPP prime minister to choose any differently.

So what will the court gain by ousting a second prime minister in a matter of weeks? If a recalcitrant government is bad for democracy, so is an inflexible judiciary. Hopefully, there is still time for common sense to prevail.