‘Judicial coup’ mars Pakistan’s democratic transition


Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Friday from holding public office for life in a corruption inquiry linked to the Panama Papers, which had named three of his children as owners of offshore companies suspected of laundering money. But Sharif’s ouster will mar the country’s democratic transition, analyst Aqil Shah writes for The New York Times:

Pakistan’s senior judiciary “has an abysmally poor record of defending democracy against authoritarian interventions,” notes Shah, author of “The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan,” and a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy:

While there have been a handful of dissenting judges, the Supreme Court has legalized each one of Pakistan’s three successful military coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999. … The empowered judges have become media-courting populists and have typically joined forces with the military by using allegations of corruption against disobedient prime ministers….

The court has set a dangerous judicial precedent that can easily be used to unseat elected leaders in the future, adds Shah (right) (@AqilShah_), Wick Cary assistant professor of South Asian politics at the University of Oklahoma.

By deposing Sharif, Pakistan “stays faithful to its 70 year tradition: no PM ever removed by voters, only by judges, generals, bureaucrats or assassins,” tweeted Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US who is now a director at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.

While concerned about the manner of Sharif’s ouster, some civil society groups expressed the hope that the democratic process would continue, the new premier would be allowed to work with liberty, the parliament would complete its tenure and the next general elections would be held in 2018 according to the schedule.

The decision will have far-reaching effects, not just for the future of the Sharif dynasty but for Pakistan’s fragile democratic order, says analyst Raza Rumi (left), another former Reagan-Fascell fellow.  Pakistan has long oscillated between military regimes and weak democratic dispensations. Since 1947, the military has directly ruled. It is noteworthy that no civilian prime minister completed his or her tenure. Sharif’s exit continues the trend.

New precedent

“A new precedent has been set,” says Huma Baqai, a Karachi University professor. “Pakistan’s political leaders will have to be more careful on how they conduct themselves in the future. It’s still a long way to go but it’s a good beginning,” Baqai told The FT:

Other analysts see the ruling against Mr Sharif as a setback for democracy in a country where civilian governments have repeatedly been undermined by a powerful military that has tried to retain tight control over foreign and security policy, and relations with India in particular.

“A lot of Pakistanis believe there is a political witch hunt to this investigation,” says Michael Kugelman, a South Asia associate at Washington’s Wilson Centre. “There is going to be a lot of suspicion that the military was trying to influence outcomes. In a country like Pakistan, one always has to wonder what the military is up to behind the scenes.”

Other analysts were less gloomy, finding reasons for optimism in the measures taken against Sharif, a striking verdict given the seeming impunity with which Pakistan’s powerful political clans long operated, The Washington Post adds.

“This is a blow to the democratic process but a victory for democratic principles,” the Wilson Center’s Kugelman told The Post. “Once again a democratically elected prime minister will not serve out a full term, and the political system has suffered a shock, but it will survive. We’ve come a long way since the days of military rule.”

In fact, this verdict weakens the country’s tenuous democracy and allows its all-powerful army to grab power without having to formally seize it, analyst Barkha Dutt writes for The Post.

“This is a judicial coup,” said Haqqani (right), Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States. “Had this been about corruption, there would have been a trial, not direct intervention by the Supreme Court, which should only be the court of final appeal in criminal matters. The military in Pakistan knows the difficulties of a military coup, so now hidden powers are using the judiciary.”

Former Pakistani cricket captain and populist firebrand Imran Khan could emerge as a beneficiary of the coup, observers suggest.

The Hudson Institute’s Haqqani described Mr. Khan as an “instrument” to force Mr. Sharif from power but not to succeed him.

“He is not the kind of man the establishment would like to be in charge,” he told The New York Times. “He is mercurial and unpredictable. It took the generals two decades to cut Nawaz Sharif to size after they created a political career for him. They will not make the same mistake again, of helping someone they cannot control.”

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