Pakistan’s victory for rule of law

A Supreme Court decision against the prime minister reinforces judicial independence in a country with a long history of military intervention.

Police officers walk past the Supreme Court of Pakistan building, in Islamabad, April 6.

After a tense five-day political standoff that left Pakistan without a government, the Supreme Court ruled on April 7 that Prime Minister Imran Khan “was not within his rights” when he dissolved Parliament to thwart a vote to remove him from power.

The high court’s decision did more than affirm the constitutional separation of powers and the principle of rule of law. It demonstrated that judicial independence can thrive in a country that defines its national identity on the basis of Islam. The political fallout of the ruling may also deprive Russian President Vladimir Putin of a key ally at a pivotal moment in the war in Ukraine.

The unanimous decision immediately reinstated the National Assembly and spells a political end for a leader who rose to power on his popularity as Pakistan’s most beloved sports hero. A former captain of the national cricket team, Mr. Khan has overseen a disastrous economic record since being elected in 2018, as well as a sharp diplomatic shift away from the West. He lost his parliamentary majority last Sunday. The legislature will now vote Saturday on whether to replace the prime minister.

“It’s a bold but much welcome move by the Supreme Court, especially for constitutional supremacy,” Marva Khan, a law professor at Lahore University of Management Science, told Bloomberg. “Having a unanimous judgment on the matter further strengthens the value of this precedent.”

A fragile democracy since independence in 1947, Pakistan has yet to see a single prime minister serve a complete five-year term. The military is notorious for meddling in the country’s political affairs. Significantly, however, a 2010 constitutional amendment transferred the power to appoint judges from the president – an office that combines ceremonial political functions and commander in chief of the armed forces – to a panel of judicial peers. That contrasts sharply with other Islamic countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, where Islamic law predominates and judges are subordinate to influential religious leaders.

The reform 12 years ago has had a measurable effect. A 2020 study found a decrease in the appointment of judges with past political careers. Courts have better restrained the government’s misuse of eminent domain in taking private property. In general, judges have displayed greater impartiality in rulings against the government. That corresponds with international studies that show a strong link between judicial independence and overall development.

Mr. Khan himself provided another measure of the reform’s effect. The embattled prime minister emerged from a meeting with legal advisers ahead of the court ruling and vowed to accept whatever decision it made.

The court effectively quashed an allegation by Mr. Khan that the bid to oust him was a “foreign conspiracy” orchestrated by Washington. The person most likely to benefit from its decision is Shehbaz Sharif, an opposition leader and brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The military has already signaled its interest in re-prioritizing ties with the West after Mr. Khan’s drift toward China and Russia. A first order of business for a new caretaker government will be setting a course for elections and resetting dialogue with lenders like the International Monetary Fund.

For the moment, however, a constitutional crisis has been averted and a key democratic norm reaffirmed.

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