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. 

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

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.

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. 

“Whether our intellectual elite acknowledge it or not, Qadri’s scripted and choreographed speech [on Tuesday] touched on all the points that the masses feel are important. It’s a shame that it takes an undemocratic figurehead to exploit the gaps that the democratic leadership has left in the body politic through its willful negligence,” Khuhro says.

While in the past Pakistan has seen military coups collaborating with the judiciary, legal experts feel that with the restoration of the current Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry – ousted by the military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 2007 – the judiciary has become fiercely independent and is not bedfellows with the military anymore. 

What Pakistan does suffer from, say analysts, is a bad example of leadership.

“Pakistan has seen so many years of military rule that politicians are overawed by their authority and power, and sometimes, just like military, they think they are also above the law,” says Anwar Mansoor Khan, former attorney general of Pakistan. He resigned from the government in 2010 after the government refused to listen to his advice to abide by the decision of the Supreme Court to ask Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

Mr. Khan stressed the fact that the judiciary has started questioning the military too, pointing to the recent examples of the Supreme Court's public grilling of the military over illegal abductions in a case about missing persons. 

Meanwhile, Geo Television has started to run a campaign on its channels to raise awareness about the difference "between government and democracy."

In light of upcoming elections, “we want to remind the government, the armed forces, and the public that they need to distinguish between the state and the system,” says Imran Aslam, president of Geo TV.

“When there are ominous clouds about the derailing of the whole democratic process,” he says, “we also want to remind everyone that there is a system in place; and with an independent judiciary and the media, there is no need for any unconstitutional measures.” He adds that governments come and go, but the system remains.

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