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Of PMs lost

August 08, 2012

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.