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Politicians’ reactions

November 09, 2012

WITH refreshing maturity and more than a little cleverness, the ruling party and the PML-N have managed to spin the army chief and chief justice’s recent remarks as cooperative steps forward for Pakistani democracy. This was, for several reasons, the wise thing to do even as some commentators and public figures were ringing hasty alarm bells about clashes of institutions and threats to the current set-up. For one, Gen Kayani’s statement seems to have been designed to boost morale within the army rank and file and demonstrate a show of strength in the face of a media and a judiciary increasingly willing to hold the army to account. Best for the civilians then, including Nawaz Sharif, to stay out of the fray and focus on the less hard-hitting bits of Gen Kayani’s speech. And while the information minister did take the opportunity to reiterate that it is parliament that sets the constitution, his welcoming of the chief justice’s remarks was a sensible response. Whether or not it was appropriate for the chief justice to opine publicly on good governance, little would have been gained from reviving the not-so-distant antagonism between the government and the Supreme Court, especially given the relative calm that has followed the much-awaited writing of the letter to Swiss authorities.

More importantly, both politicians emphasised a specific and quite critical point: they focused on the two chiefs’ remarks about upholding the constitution and law. The constitution as it stands, though, is more supportive of elected representatives than it has been for several decades, and recent judgments have left little room for doubt about the unconstitutionality of military interventions. So by focusing on this aspect, both Mr Sharif and Mr Kaira managed to use Gen Kayani and Justice Chaudhry’s remarks to strengthen the argument for democracy and for institutions remaining within their defined roles.

There was much hype in the hours following the two chiefs’ statements: who was Gen Kayani sending a message to? Were his words an indication that the military’s patience was running out, a veiled threat that things were about to change? And even if the timing of Justice Chaudhry’s speech was simply a coincidence, was he once again trying to assert the superiority of the judiciary over other state institutions? Would Pakistan make it to the next elections? Reactions from the ruling party and the main opposition not only defused the impact of such overexcited speculation, but also cleverly offered interpretations that bolster the case for upholding the importance of parliament and the democracy it represents.