The first thing that should strike the mind in the ongoing confrontation between the judiciary and the executive is that there is no obvious answer regarding who is right and who is wrong.
Both sides are seemingly correct in their own way. As far as the judiciary goes, they are protecting the constitution. Who can fault someone for that?
What of the executive? President Zardari and his gang of coalition allies. From the outset, they have consistently reiterated that the parliament is the country’s supreme political institution over and above the judiciary and that members of parliament are the true representatives of public will. By consistently equating the executive with the parliament, Zardari and his supporters have tried to portray the judicial attack on the executive as an attack on democracy. By attacking democracy, they say, the judiciary is implicitly pushing for military rule. This is particularly dangerous in a country that has experienced long bouts of military rule. It is particularly dangerous in a country, which is presently experiencing one of its longest periods of democratic rule. It is particularly dangerous in a country, which is going through an economic and fiscal crisis that may worsen if the political system becomes any more unstable.Except, one cannot equate the executive with democracy as the PPP is doing.
When discussing this confrontation, it is not enough to refer to the side confronting the judges as simply the “politicians”. Or “democracy”. There are many types of politicians within a democratic system and they all come together to make it a working system. There are many components in a democratic system and the executive is but one of these. The judiciary is not taking on democracy specifically; it is taking on the executive as represented by the ruling PPP government.
To say that the judiciary is taking on the entire institution of democracy is, at best, inaccurate and, at worst, defamation. Why the need for this distinction between democracy and executive?
Because, it is possible for a country to experience democratic rule as Pakistan has been doing and simultaneously suffer at the hands of an inept ruling government. Democracy, as a system, is not to blame. But one of its components is blameworthy. What the PPP is doing is blurring the fine distinction between democracy and the executive. Zardari is hiding behind the cover of democracy to disguise his executive’s shortcomings.
But is it possible that pressuring the ruling government can eventually disrupt the entire democratic process even if the judiciary doesn’t want to? Just because the judiciary does not intend to destroy democracy doesn’t mean that it won’t. No one – the judiciary included – is capable of predicting the results of the judiciary’s constant pressuring of the civilian government.
Given Pakistan’s history of military rule, this is a real danger. However, the danger is overstated. Pakistani democracy has been around for too long and the concept of multi-party politics is too firmly entrenched in the Pakistani psyche. Even when Musharraf ruled, he was forced to do so through the PML-Q. As such, even if the civilian government was ousted, it would come roaring back. The net result of such a turn of events would be Pakistan going through military rule only to inevitably come back to democratic rule.
Far from disrupting democracy, the courts are performing two vital functions by attempting to hold the PPP accountable.
They are asserting their own autonomy and creating their own identity among the various political institutions. This is important because a functioning democracy requires a delicate balance of power between all institutions. Dysfunction occurs when one institution does not have its own identity and becomes subordinate to others. One example of this is when the judiciary loses its identity and becomes a puppet of the executive as has so often been the case in Pakistani history.
Further, the courts are setting a unique precedent for future democratic governments: that it is not enough to simply be elected into power. A government must deliver upon its public mandate. If it doesn’t, then that regime will be held accountable. Not through military might, as in the past, but through the rule of law.
When looked at from this angle, the confrontation between institutions becomes clearer. The executive is in the wrong. The judiciary, in the right.