The Great Farce of Pakistani Politics

The army, the judiciary and civilian government struggle for political supremacy.

Government buildings in Islamabad, Pakistan, February 7, 2005
Government buildings in Islamabad, Pakistan, February 7, 2005 (Luke Stiles)

Recent developments in Pakistan have been variously characterized as a “judicial coup,” a “prelude to a coup” (or not, depending on the commentator), an anti-corruption crusade, a personality clash, a vendetta, an intelligence agency conspiracy and a military-judicial collusion. This plethora of views is best encapsulated by the conclusion to the poem The Six Blind Men of Hindoostan.

So six blind men of Hindoostan
disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
exceedingly stiff and strong;
Though each was partly in the right,
they all were in the wrong!

It is far too easy and a crude oversimplification to blame the “military” for Pakistan’s ills. The problem with Pakistan has always been systemic which is why history repeats itself time and again, usually as a farce, which is what this latest “crisis” is.

While military excesses have always been the most visible and documented overreaches of authority, almost all of Pakistan’s many crises have included civilian and judicial overreach.

The very first resolution that the elected cabinet of the independent Pakistan passed in 1947 was to give the unelected Muhammad Ali Jinnah the authority to override them. In many ways, this tendency to personalize institutional prerogatives was exacerbated by Pakistan’s inability to enact a constitution for the first nine years of independence. When it finally was, dangerous precedents had already been set in a lacuna lacking any framework. The nebulous power balances that existed at that time were transferred to the Constitution in the form of unclear checks and balances.

This laid the foundations for an augustan Pakistan where each institution was as good or as bad as the individual in charge. Frequently, this has meant that like the Roman caesars, institutional heads, be they military, judicial or civil, exceeded their mandates.

The 1947 resolution laid the foundations of conflict between the elected and unelected executive and has manifested itself in the dismissal or disqualification of every single Pakistani prime minister since.

The elected executive has also had its share of megalomaniacs. It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s manipulation of President Yahya Khan that worsened the situation in East Pakistan. His subsequent refusal to accept the results of the 1971 election led to the horrors that culminated in the secession of Bangladesh.

Zulfikar Bhutto was also quite candid in admitting that he goaded the military into the 1965 and 1971 confrontations with India specifically to weaken it domestically.

Similarly, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto tried to play caesar, variously to trump chief justice or president or army chief. Sometimes they succeeded but ultimately were cut to size.

The judges have been no different. Pliant when required, they have justified military coups under the “doctrine of necessity” but also provoked confrontation with the military as current and then chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry did in 2007, ostensibly to oppose the imposition of an emergency despite a clear deterioration in law and order but really to deflect some very serious charges he was facing.

What emerges is a perpetual pas de trois involving the army chief, the civilian executive and the chief justice, each vying to be caesar. This is complicated by the subplot, the pas de deux between the unelected president and the elected prime minister.

This ballet plot describes every political crisis in Pakistan, including the present. The army chief cannot take over the country since the circumstances are not right, so variously he activates the Anti Narcotics Force to sabotage the candidacy of Zardari’s first choice for prime minister, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, or he uses the intelligence services to buttress Imran Khan as an alternative. This is done ostensibly under the guise of ensuring the rule of law and accountability.

Justice Chaudhry, in order to cover his own corruption, first took on Pervez Musharraf and now selectively targets President Zardari to hide the corruption of his son. This is done under the guise of taking on a military dictator or combatting graft.

Zardari, in turn, uses the office of prime minister as a proxy to shield himself from blatant corruption and abuse of office but also to open investigations into the chief justice’s son. This is done again under the guise of ensuring judicial accountability and due process.

What then will we see in Pakistan? No Pakistan People’s Party leader can be elected without bearing the Bhutto name, ergo, the prime minister is disposable and is require to fall on his sword for his liege — Zardari. As a result, expect to see more prime ministers of Pakistan fall in rapid succession defending the president.

Iftikhar Chaudhry has a history of corruption and abuse of office, just like Zardari. Expect to see the judiciary attempt — knowing full well that it is an exercise in futility — to force prime ministers to write to Swiss authorities seeking details of the Bhutto family’s ill gotten gains.

Given how vulnerable the army is, expect it to allow the judiciary and legislature to destroy themselves once more so that its chosen puppet Imran Khan can take over. Then the great farce will begin all over again with different faces.

In the end, every actor in this farce is convinced that what they are doing is about civilian supremacy, checks and balances, accountability, the rule of law, etc. The reality is that this is about power, pure and simple.

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