Pakistan’s Institutional Battles: Coups and Continuity

The past few weeks have been been a tumultuous time for Pakistani democracy. Even Deputy US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Hoagland Tweeted last week that, “it’s getting confusing”. But as people try to make sense of rapidly changing events, it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees. Despite what seem like inscrutable events taking place, it’s what isn’t happening that points to democratic progress in Pakistan.

After convicting the Prime Minister of contempt for “ridiculing the judiciary” (a claim that did not appear in the charge sheet against the Prime Minister) and allowing the Speaker of the National Assembly to rule the Prime Minister eligible to continue in office, Pakistan’s Supreme Court made an about face and ordered the Prime Minister be retroactively disqualified from office.

The Wall Street Journal called the decision, “Islamabad’s Judicial Coup,”, but Pakistan’s governing party took the announcement in stride, quickly announcing the nomination of Makhdoom Shahabuddin, a former minister, to replace Yousaf Raza Gilani as Prime Minister. The judiciary respond by issuing an arrest warrant for Mr. Shahabuddin and the former Prime Minister’s son at the request of a military-run anti-narcotics agency, further enflaming fears that the military is using the courts to wage a proxy war against the democratically-elected government.

Unlike his predecessor, however, President Zardari has not responded by attempting to remake with more pliant justices. Instead, new names were floated and, at the time of writing, Pakistan’s parliament assembled on Friday to choose a new Prime Minister from five candidates representing both coalition and opposition parties. While the political drama is likely to continue even after the new Prime Minster is sworn in, it appears that some of the worst fears are unlikely to come true.

After decades of interruption by military coups, Pakistan’s democracy finds its institutions struggling to assert themselves in a power framework that is still being defined. What is extraordinary is not that institutions are vying for power, but that the democratically elected government has remained more or less intact during the process. Rather than being a sign of a failing democracy, this should be seen as a sign of a maturing one.

We in the US are no strangers to institutional power struggles – even messy ones. President Bill Clinton was convicted of contempt of court charges in 1999 and faced impeachment proceedings in Congress. He was ultimately acquitted by the Senate and served out the remained of his term. Congress has been known to engage in the practice of “jurisdiction stripping” – inserting language into bills that limits the judiciary’s power to hear certain cases or review certain actions by other branches. And just this week, a House committee recommended that Attorney General Eric Holder be held in contempt for failing to turn over documents after President Obama asserted executive privilege in the matter.

Americans find such power struggles frustrating, but we don’t expect them to topple the entire system. Pakistan, of course, does not have over 200 years of democratic wrangling behind it to ensure a similar sense of comfort with political squabbles – more often, institutional battles are solved at gunpoint. Today, though, the level of military involvement in events appears to be subdued, and despite several false alarms, the government elected by the people in 2008 remains in place, even holding scheduled Senate elections earlier this year without major incident. Pakistan’s ability to weather the current political storm without sinking will be an important sign of democratic maturation. The government’s responses to institutional pressure so far give ample reason to believe democracy in Pakistan is here to stay.


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