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Of PMs lost


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ON Aug 6, 1990, president Ghulam Ishaq Khan took a seat before the television cameras and announced that he was dismissing the government of prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

When he delivered the news, the first Bhutto government had been in office for about 20 months. It had been corrupt and inept, the president told everyone, and he had no confidence in its ability to govern the nation. He appointed a caretaker government and elections for a new prime minister were held in two months.

During Pakistan’s current wrangles over the issue of contempt of court the mechanics of previous dismissals make for ironic reading. If the issue today is the task of ordering the prime minister to write a letter to a foreign government and the power of the judicial branch to compel him to do so, the issue then was the Eighth Amendment to the constitution.

Could an unelected president summarily dismiss a sitting prime minister, do away with the choices made via elections — those costly mechanisms of the people’s will? Those who supported the president then insisted that it was possible, even necessary for the amendment to exist as an instrument via which the executive could stand guard over the power of the elected to usurp.

The current PPP government evaded long ago the Damoclean shadow of the Eighth Amendment; the president and the prime minister are cut of the same party’s cloth and hence not intentional dangers to each other. New perils have emerged to dog them, the fears again of military appointments and dismissals and immunities coined via seemingly illegitimate reconciliations. The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the hastily passed Contempt of Court Act, 2012 has left Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf as shelterless as the old one and restored the perpetual state of crisis that pursues the PPP-led administration.

Will the leaders of the PPP attempt to pass another contempt bill through parliament, this time even faster? Will the SC dismiss this prime minister with the same alacrity as the last one? There are no certainties in Pakistan, except those of more reviews, more petitions and more commissions and prime ministers.

Given these historical constants, it is unsurprising that the details of dismissals past and impending have captured the attention of commentators in Pakistan. It feels lofty to argue the complexities of constitutions, patched up and hacked and suspended and restored as Pakistan’s may be. It is comforting to consider individual crises as the generative pangs of robust institution-building. Whether the executive can or should or could dismiss the leader of the legislature and whether a court has the power to strike down legislation and compel prime ministers to do its bidding are all civilised questions. Each one suggests the existence of a rule that can be unearthed, a system that can be devised.

It is here that the faulty assumption lies: not in the law or the leaders but in the semblance of them and in the charade that this episodic wrangling takes the country in some better direction towards more finely delineated protections against abuse than what existed previously. The question is not of legalities and amendments but of ethics, and the architecture of immorality is the same one each time: one person with more power and another with a little less, a push and pull with the law covering up for the barbarism of greed, the husband who stole versus the son who was bribed.

In the constitutional wrangles of Pakistan, the danger is not in their details but in what they mask, appearing before the country each time in new casts but hiding the same inadequacies, the same weaknesses and the same churlish belief in the rightness of power and the wrongness of not having it.

There will be another episode in the drama, a day when a few hundred thousand Pakistanis sitting before their television sets will feed again on the theatre of review petitions and unwritten letters. Millions of others have already turned away, or perhaps never paid attention in the first place. The cost of usurping the system in Pakistan must be assessed in their numbers, the ones who no longer believe in the nuts and bolts of democratic governance. These people have been won away to another side where the vote is not the instrument of choice, where the misuse of institutions is reason enough to literally blow them up.

When Pakistanis stood amidst the wreckage of an elected government 22 years ago, they may have been able to afford the fantasy that crises of legitimacy can be solved with process and procedure. Now, after thousands killed in terrorist violence and extremist groups spurring violence in every corner of the country, the cost of constitutional crises, of laws and letters, cannot simply be explained away as the birth pangs of the newly democratic.

Democracy has always been young in Pakistan — when the nation was young, when the prime minister was young and young still when it is no longer young; when it dies, it will undoubtedly still be mourned as having passed before its time. It’s the problems that have gotten old, worn repetitive and now lethal.

If another prime minister is sacked in Pakistan in the days before its 65th birthday, it may be a different death: a time when it will not simply be the office holder that will perish, literally or figuratively, but the office itself. With their history of lost prime ministers, dead, deposed or dismissed, Pakistanis might conclude that the problem lies not in the man or the woman or the party but in the very concept of prime ministership itself.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

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

Comments (15) Closed

Mikal Aug 08, 2012 08:48am
Beautiful article.
Keti Zilgish Aug 08, 2012 10:17am
Try No Rulers Anymore!
ali Aug 08, 2012 04:01am
Right. How about a President like the US?
Falcon Aug 08, 2012 09:44am
Rafia - I agree with you. But I also see that for the first time alternate bases such as judiciary and media are flexing their muscles. The outcome again might be an imperfect system but still a better system. Re-establishing institutional balance is not easy and is very painful. I think the next government will have it easier than this, provided our electorate is able to push through reasonable leadership to the top of the political pyramid.
Irfan Husain Aug 08, 2012 10:45am
Very clear summation of the confrontation between the judiciary and the executive.
Cyrus Howell Aug 08, 2012 02:44pm
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry is the only man with enough strength and determination to run the country.
Mushtaq Ahmed Aug 08, 2012 02:45pm
It's a very thoughtful & the writer has beautifully summarized the history of the deposed Prime Ministers. It's a sad commentary of our politicians & the system that we have. But what is demoralizing is that arrogance of power of Executive is not ready to accept checks by Judiciary on the flawed & partisan law enacted by the Parliamentarians. I think the fhe commitment by the PM in writing & endorsed by Parliament to the SC on the following lines may perhaps avoid the confrontation ; " A letter by the Govt of the day will be sent to Swiss Court the day President Zardari is no longer the President of Pakistan & the case will be pursued till decided either abroad or in Pak courts ". I pray that Pak is stable ; Govt & Judiciary respect each other.
imee Aug 08, 2012 04:01pm
To Rafia zakria commonly people are in panic pace....if parliament prones to legislation and pass bill of contempt of court... however,ironically ,supreme court disagree about this legislation of that bill.people are in perplex wheather ,parliament is right or judicial jurisdiction?
Mushtaq Ahmed Aug 08, 2012 04:36pm
It's a very thoughtful & the writer has beautifully summarized the history of the deposed Prime Ministers. It's a sad commentary of our politicians & the system that we have. But what is demoralizing is that arrogance of power can't digest the checks & balances to their often flawed & partisan legislation, much to the detriment to democratic stability. This is a test case ; either democracy will derail or system will strengthen.
Shahzad Kazi Aug 08, 2012 04:45pm
Parliamentary democracy has failed in Pakistan. We should revert to the Presidential form of government.
logic Europe Aug 08, 2012 04:48pm
Do people deserve democracy ? Did they deserve Pakistan ? A judge has realised Army is not going to step in so he has created and is trying to fill in the gap ? He is not worth it
Humanist Aug 08, 2012 05:02pm
The whole system of Western Democracy is the innovation for Neo-Colonization. PM s come and go, but country goes down. The only remedy seems to be an European-style non-heredity Constitutional Monarchy in Pakistan.
imran khan Aug 08, 2012 05:12pm
concise and precise summary of article "of pm lost"
Tariq Aug 08, 2012 07:10pm
As if rules were obeyed before!
BJ Kumar Aug 12, 2012 01:23pm
Well-written! But does not tell the whole story (and certainly shies away from the underlying one, perhaps with good reason).