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The strongest institution?


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THERE has never been any doubt, that for more than 50 years, from the mid-1950s to almost exactly the end of 2007, the single-most powerful and dominating institution in Pakistan’s body politic has been the military, or more specifically, the army.

It has ruled, governed, manipulated, deformed and interfered in the political process in the country, as if it had a right to do so. There is also no denying the fact that the military has acted with a mind of its own, and made judgments which benefited itself as an institution, and which it believed were in its vision of the ‘national interest’, often under what it felt was a moral obligation to save the country under different meanings of the doctrines of necessity.

Importantly, the military has always been anti-politician — but never anti-politics — singularly going after elected representatives individually, and against political institutions elected outside the ambit of the rules created by the military. It has not had a problem dealing with some elected politicians, as long as these elected politicians have accepted the hegemony of the military and played according to its rules.

There are a number of important differences in the way Pakistan’s most recent prime minister was dismissed, compared with those dismissed over the last four decades or so.

Firstly, and importantly, the prime minister was not dismissed, as were the five between 1988 and 1999, or even the one in 1977, on accusations of corruption, inefficiency, ineptitude or because the economy was perceived to have collapsed. If anything, the most recent of Pakistan’s prime ministers was dismissed due to his defiance based on his loyalty to the co-chairman of his party. Columnist I.A. Rehman even considers this dismissal to be a ‘non-political’ charge.

The second major difference is that the prime minister was not dismissed by the president or on his orders, or by the chief of the army staff, as were the prime ministers between 1988 and 1999. Importantly, in this last, most recent dismissal, it was the Supreme Court of Pakistan which dismissed the prime minister — what Asma Jahangir has called a ‘judicial coup’ — on its own initiative, not on the recommendations or advice of the president.

Finally, while Pakistan’s military is always playing politics, sometimes running government, at others from behind, manipulating politicians and interfering in how civilian governments work, at the moment at least one cannot clearly see the hidden hand of the military at play in the Supreme Court’s decision.

By all means, this seems to be an independent intervention pushed through by the Supreme Court in order to — depending on how one sees the higher judiciary — either enforce the rule of law in Pakistan, or victimise the PPP and settle old scores as supporters of the party suggest. The higher judiciary’s ‘revenge’ is a term which might come to mind. Whatever the rationale, it is clear that the higher judiciary has acquired a mind of its own, believing that it has done so and is acting on that belief, something which one did not see on many occasions in the past.Does this newfound independence and a coming into its own suggest that Pakistan’s high judiciary has become the strongest institution in the country? Its ability to dismiss a democratically elected prime minister might suggest this. This has been the doing of the military for the last five decades, and no one has ever doubted the military’s dominance. What difference does it make if a coup is a military one or a judicial one, when the end result is the same or similar? In fact, one could go a step further, based on the recent judgment, and some might argue that by constitutionally, and hence supposedly legitimately, having dismissed the prime minister and barring him from public office for five years, the supreme judiciary has greater legitimacy and authenticity than any of the unconstitutional military coups and other dismissals of the past.

Hence, the argument could be made, that of the four main political institutions of the country — parliament, the military, the media and the judiciary — it is the last named which has acquired a position of supremacy, if not dominance, in making political decisions.

There is no doubt that the judiciary has been moving with a mind of its own, making elbow room at the political table, pushing other institutions aside. It is also true that the higher judiciary as an institution as well as its leader continue to be immensely popular in the public imagination, and are also supported by some key political parties. At the moment, the higher judiciary seems to have far greater popular and public support and legitimacy than any other institution in the country. But is it the strongest institution in Pakistan today?

Parliament and elected representatives have always been a soft target. They can be dismissed easily, and the judiciary has proven this in the past as well by disqualifying certain candidates, or dismissing governments.

The media too, or at least important opinion-makers in the media, can be easily bought over — as we have seen — or told to toe the line of the government or the military, something one can easily discern from opinions and positions taken by the media people.

But for the judiciary to really emerge as the strongest institution in Pakistan, it will have to show that it can also, in its judicious spirit of independence, autonomy and impartiality, make decisions which challenge the strongest institution of the previous five decades.

Until the military is also put into the dock for many of its well-documented misdemeanours, the judiciary will simply be perceived to be on a vengeful drive discriminating against a few chosen opponents. Although the judiciary has made some beginnings in the military’s domain, the question is: will the judiciary be able to dismiss the leader of the military if he is seen to have broken the law?

(So what if they douse the candles in rooms where lovers meet? If they’re so mighty, let them snuff out the moon.)

The writer is a political economist.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (24) Closed

Sam Jul 02, 2012 08:15am
Banks like UBL,HBL etc. are the most powerful and stable institutions in Pakistan.
Cyrus Howell Jul 03, 2012 03:29am
War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes...known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. . . No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." -- James Madison, Political Observations, 1795
@SecularPakista1 Jul 02, 2012 01:19pm
The comparison of different institutions and ranking them as to who is the most powerful is an observation based on time and view. The Army hopefully has learned its lesson not to be a political player as it has trashed its reputation in the process. The judiciary and the press are beginning to take hold and making space for themselves. Neither are perfect nor will they ever be. The politicians are always the last to rep from themselves. By nature most politicians are corrupt. They need the checks and balances of other institutions to make them walk a straight line. Over time, given time, things will move in the right direction.
Murtaza Jul 02, 2012 10:47pm
It is strange to note that the dubious character registrar of supreme court got twice extension, which really made the judiciary obscure and incomprehensible.
Baba Sidni Jul 03, 2012 12:42am
The writer says "Hence, the argument could be made, that of the four main political institutions of the country — parliament, the military, the media and the judiciary — it is the last named which has acquired a position of supremacy, if not dominance, in making political decisions." In my opinion and the knowledge, I got about democracy, there are three pillars of democracy, namely - parliament, judiciary and the executive, where did the military and the media come from. I assume that military has to be included as the writer has been living under the military rule for ages, and the media came into the list as the writer himself belongs to this category. An example comes to mind which is the basis of an old folk saying - "ham be to hain panhwaen sawroon main" The basis of which is said to be that in olden days, four riders were off to Delhi from Lahore on their horses. A man riding a donkey, also tagged along. Now on the way whenever someone asked, where are the four 'shehsawars' (horse-riders) going the donkey rider will always promptly reply, "All the five of us 'shehsawars' (riders) are going to Delhi".
akhter husain Jul 02, 2012 09:05am
Money cannot buy wisdom based on professional expertise and integrity to run any business efficiently and profitably.
Zahida R. Jatt Jul 02, 2012 07:38am
This article is very reflective as well thought provoking keeping in view the political scenario of the country .
G.a Jul 02, 2012 02:22pm
To check this judiciary is precisely why the Taliban and other militants repeatedly call for Sharia law. They don't have to accept any judgements from this 'Western' justice system and can go unchecked with their crimes knowing very well that Sharia will never be implemented.
Zahida R. Jatt Jul 02, 2012 07:24am
well, the dismissal of political representatives by judiciary in exceptionl cases cannot be condemned.But if the political leaders keep on being indifferent to the decisoins of supreme court , this decision is justifiable , in my opinion.
wellwisher Jul 02, 2012 07:03am
Four pillars of democracy are Legislature, Executive, Judiciary and Media. How far they are functioning independently and efficiently without straying into other's domain is anybody's guess. I think all the four pillars failed in Pakistan. Only Army which is no where near seems to be the strongest institution because its weaknesses were never allowed to be exposed. Am I right?
Meekal Ahmed Jul 02, 2012 06:47am
Akbar, this is excellent. I have never known him to shy away from the truth.
Sultan Khan Jul 02, 2012 12:05pm
For a prosperous and stable society there must be in place a system of checks and balances and the cardinal [principle is that an individual or group of individuals with similar interests is checked by another individual or group of individuals For example, Parliament is checked by the masses. The executive and military are checked by the Parliament. All these are checked by the judiciary. But who checks the judiciary? They themselves. Isn't totally against the system of checks and balances. Sultan .
A J Khan Jul 02, 2012 05:57am
If the judiciary is serious in putting the matters in its correct place, then it has to put its house in order. There is still corruption, inefficiency and lack of professionalism in our judicial system. It has failed to deliver. A judge who cannot handle a simple case and cannot give a good decision in ten years is worthless both on account of time and money. There delays and incomplete judgment s has discouraged people at large to go to the courts. They have started going to the Jirgas instead. Higher Judiciary too has not concentrated on the problems of general public, but has gone for cases with media glitz. So I would suggest that Judiciary should first deliver justice to general public, and once it has done its basic function, it should than expand its wing with credibility.
zaman khan Jul 02, 2012 05:35am
azharali Jul 02, 2012 05:14am
I do not understand why Akbar Zaidi is so optimistic. In fact it seems that he has shied away from telling what he wanted to tell.
Dr Imran Ahmed Jul 02, 2012 05:10am
A very insightful article. Our system of constitutional democracy must continue with all three pillars intact. The inept legislature which appoints the corrupt executive inevitably reflects the choices made by the people. The electorate has to mature for better choices to be made. The army's adventures into civilian matters will decrease only if the civilians refuse to accept it's writ. The army will continue its writ as long as its propaganda mechanisms remain intact and the people continue to support its control over matters well outside an army's legitimate ambit. Our judiciary has to learn how to dispense law with transparent impartiality whatever the provocation. Brotherhood and grouping among jurists is an ominous development. For a legal system ends can never justify means.
Tahir Ahmad Jul 02, 2012 11:06am
Apology if you don't agree to this How many of our normal people have benifitted from this decision?????. Poor People are still travelling long distance from their homes to the court only to find out that Justice Sahib is away on holidays etc. Not to speak of lower courts, thousands of cases are still pending in the higher courts of Pakistan for many years & only politically motivated cases are heard in these court. And many more?????? Please be realistic & face the facts.
Nadir Aziz Jul 02, 2012 04:16am
The last para sums it all up. In my opinion, if the judiciary is not independent in Pakistan as we have seen since Zia's coup, there is simply no hope of Pakistan being a true democracy.The facade of democracy that is Pakistan will eventually weaken the country to disintegrate from withen and in a few short years Pakistan will cease to be what it is today.
Amir Jul 02, 2012 10:52am
fair analysis, the perception emerges from actions and to convert perceptions into beliefs like "justice for all" judiciary have to take actions according to law and constitution against all including military,
mohammed ali jawaid Jul 02, 2012 01:40pm
asking the judiciary to put everything right and take on the strongest institution is asking for too much from an institution who has just started to call a spade a spade. author perhaps got carried away with a group of people media included who while accepting its ineptness repose little hope in the incumbent executive and demand everything under the sun from judiciary. the demand is too naive and too early. judiciary has limitations. it works under legal frame work. despite its limitation it has gone into restricted domain, missing persons case, for example. and don't forget armed forces enjoy their own legal system under the constitution that works independently and separately from the legal system entrusted for civilians. the point i am trying to make here is that we, as a nation, should give all out support to the present judiciary in its effort to eliminate corruption from public institutions including its own instead of making demands which are not in its domain and which can destabilize this very institution where majority is placing all hopes right now. let it function to uphold rule of law, then a day will come when this defenseless and unarmed institution will become stronger than the armed one. this is how all civilized democracies have achieved strength. remember, Rome was not build in a day!
ghost Jul 02, 2012 04:57pm
"What difference does it make if a coup is a military one or a judicial one, when the end result is the same or similar?" the end result is the same? are you kidding me? did judiciary dissolve the parliament? did judiciary put all the leaders of PPP in jail? you are comparing apples and oranges dear! Also, you are ignoring that Judiciary did something that was well within its constitutional boundaries
Haseeb Abdali Jul 02, 2012 04:56pm
An interesting article.
Abbas Jul 02, 2012 03:11pm
Army has ruined Pakistan.
Kamran Jul 20, 2012 04:10am
Judiciary is the only tool through which check and balance can be maintained. No department or person is above the law. If immunity was the sole issue then its interpretation is sole responsibility of the same judiciary. I think the honourable judiciary has done the right thing by dimmising PM.