By George Bruno
As the NATO military offensive against the revitalized Taliban progresses in Afghanistan, the political situation in neighboring Pakistan remains tense in a way that can directly impact U.S. military and political objectives in the region.
I have long believed that the pacification of the extremist threat in South Asia and around the world can only be accomplished in an environment of democracy and the rule of law. Any assault on these values fuels the fires of fanaticism.
As one who has devoted my life to the international human rights agenda and democratization of former autocratic nations, I am growing increasingly concerned that the historic progress that was made in Pakistan in 2008, reversing a decade of military dictatorship, is now threatened by an unexpected source — the politicization of the Pakistani judiciary and the stark political ambitions of a formerly respected chief justice.
In two Supreme Court decisions, the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, has unveiled an agenda that is antithetical to democracy and seems fueled by self-aggrandizement and political opportunism. Most recently, and contrary to the constitution of Pakistan, Chaudhry usurped the right of appointment of vacancies in the court from the elected prime minister and president.
Asif Zardari, husband of the slain Benazir Bhutto, elected president of Pakistan by over 70 percent of the country’s electoral college vote but currently suffering sagging popularity, acquiesced to avoid a constitutional crisis. Yet by acquiescing he may have permitted a far greater crisis to loom in the future, a crisis fueled by what appears to be the unchecked political appetite of Chaudhry.
In a previous ruling, Chaudhry reaffirmed the right of the court to disqualify members of Parliament, the president and all ministers of the cabinet from serving if they are not of “good character,” if they violate “Islamic injunctions,” do not engage in “teaching and practices, obligatory duties prescribed by Islam,” and if they are not “sagacious, righteous and non-profligate.” The chief justice affirmed that non-Muslims must have “a good moral reputation.”
These disqualifications could apply arbitrarily and whimsically to anyone, contrary to any recognized standard of democratic rule. This is the language of dictatorship, not democracy.
Although ostensibly the chief justice is campaigning against corruption by insisting that old, unproven corruption and clearly politically motivated charges against elected leaders be reinstated, he is effectively attempting to overturn the results of Pakistan’s last election.
It isn’t particularly relevant what Zardari’s approval ratings are in Pakistan today, just as it’s not relevant what Barack Obama’s approval ratings are in the United States. Like it or not, Zardari is the legitimately elected president of Pakistan, supported in September 2008 by an overwhelming majority of the country’s legislators to serve a five year term. If he is to be replaced, it must be by the ballot box or by the constitutional process of impeachment, not by his political enemies determining if he is of “good character” or whether he is “sagacious and righteous.”
Chaudhry claims he is attempting to check the arbitrary power of the president and prime minister. But who is to check the arbitrary power of the chief justice? At least Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Gilani were elected by the people’s representatives.
Pakistanis coups have historically been led by a general in green fatigues not a jurist in black robes. Chaudhry’s recent actions have not only undermined the future of democracy in his nation, but threaten the political stability on which U.S. national interests rest. For Pakistani democracy to succeed, the chief justice must remain within his constitutional bounds, as must the executive and legislative branches of the government.
George Bruno is the co-director of the University of New Hampshire’s Partners’ for Peace program, which works to strengthen countries of the former Soviet Union as they transition to democracy. He served as U.S. ambassador to Belize and as senior executive at the Pentagon under President Clinton.