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Pakistan's political crisis: Is democracy endangered?

The Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Ashraf, sparking heated debate about the future of Pakistan's democracy. 

By Correspondent / January 15, 2013

Demonstrators in Lahore, Pakistan, Tuesday protest the nation's high court's decision to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on corruption charges.

Mani Rana/Reuters


Islamabad, Pakistan

The Supreme Court’s decision to order the arrest of the prime minister in the midst of major protests in Islamabad expressing frustration at the government has unleashed heated debate about whether democracy has just been upended in Pakistan.

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Pakistan's democratic development has frequently been interrupted by coups. The country has never had an elected government complete a full term in office. The current government is only a few months away from being the first to reach that milestone, but the court order now leaves that in doubt. 

The government has portrayed the prospect of a completed term as key to deepening democracy's roots here. Those decrying the court move generally agree, and argue that it looks like an opportunist move – timed right before elections and during a major protest – to turn out the government. Supporters of the court decision, however, say another pillar of democracy is at stake: the Constitution and the rule of law. Even high officials must play by the rules, they counter, and the court acted within its jurisdiction to order the prime minister's arrest on corruption charges.

For some analysts, the great shame is that all institutional stakeholders have sullied their democratic credentials over the years, leaving no side a trustworthy standard-bearer. In the past, the court has been the willing handmaiden of generals looking to seize power. The current elected government, meanwhile, has brushed off legitimate challenges as precursors to a coup. 

"The great tragedy here is that democracy ... has become the best scapegoat in the hands of this government," says Zarrar Khuhro, a columnist and editor of a weekly English news magazine. "Every time [government officials] are questioned on legitimate grounds, they claim that democracy is under attack. They have cried wolf so many times that now, when the wolf is actually at the door, no one really cares."

Mr. Khuhro adds that regardless of whether the timing was intentional or not, the decision by the court will be exploited by the protest leader Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, who many analysts here say is backed quietly by Pakistan's military. Mr. Qadri interrupted his speech Tuesday following the court's decision, to congratulate the tens of thousands of people protesting in front of the Parliament, who say they will not leave until the government is dismissed, to cheer the news. 

At this point, Khuhro says, the government should undergo some self-reflection about its poor governance and corruption that have spawned protests and court challenges. 


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