What looked like a riposte to Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, President Asif Ali Zardari said on July 19 in Karachi that parliament was supreme as it expressed the will of the people. He said that “parliament had every right to enact laws and would continue to do so in the future”. The chief justice had earlier said that the “Constitution trumped all institutions” and stood supreme in Pakistan instead of parliament. Very soon, the judiciary will have occasion to give its verdict on the matter when it hears the case against the ruling coalition’s passage of a law relating to contempt of court.
The presidential remark was also a repartee to the Lahore High Court, which ordered him “to cease using the presidency for political purposes by September this year”. His answer to the order was given to party men and allies gathered around him: parliament was his constituency and that no law barred the president from meeting his constituents. He asserted: “No one can bar me from meeting with elected representatives of the PPP in the presidency. You have elected me and I have become president because of your votes”. He added that “those who want to restrict political forces would not succeed”.
If he sounded overly aggressive, he quickly applied the palliative: “It is necessary for the system’s stability that every state institution respects the mandate of other institutions. However, while some institutions may, at times, appear to be overstepping their mandate in developing democracies, this is part of the system’s evolution and should not be a matter of concern”. The world outside, too, is aware of what is happening in Pakistan and has been advising ‘restraint’ to the Supreme Court and asking it not to get into the vicious circle of precedents of disqualifying prime ministers.
The judiciary has been maltreated in the past and books have been written about how the judges in Pakistan were humiliated by dictators and military rulers. The judiciary, today, is responding to this past record and is trying to prove to an admiring civil society that it is possible for the courts to stand up to coercion and challenge rulers defaulting on governance and luxuriating instead in corruption. President Zardari, while rightly putting on record his opinion about the supremacy of parliament, must also be mindful of the abysmal performance of the party in power. It is very difficult to stand up to a court that enjoys the support of civil society, to say nothing of the opposition hitting the road all guns firing trying to topple the government.
There are other factors the people of Pakistan must keep in mind in the interest of fairness. If the executive is constantly hounded by other institutions and made to feel insecure, the outreach of the executive would be curtailed and service delivery affected; ministers feeling unsure about survival in power would begin to indulge in graft. In Pakistan, some factors are atypical of the Third World paradigm. There is terrorism to cope with, which successfully exercises intimidation to persuade the politicians to blink terrorism when it happens against the ruling party. Since law and order is the domain of the provinces, most damage is done not at the federal level but at the grass roots. On top of that, there is the reality of the supremacy of the army, which seems unable to defend the citizen either against the terrorist or foreign invasion.
President Zardari also took cognisance of the growing disenchantment of the Sindhi hinterland with the PPP leadership. There is much to be said about the feudal aspects of the party with firm constituencies but neglect of rapidly growing cities in Sindh’s interior. The PPP faces the challenge of the nationalist parties in the interior where Sindhis complain of leaders who live comfortably in Karachi and rarely visit them. This has allowed the PML-N to plant its feet more firmly in Sindh, even as Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf makes inroads in Punjab and urban Sindh.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2012.