Pakistans political renaissance

Written by Shahid Javed Burki | Updated: Dec 18 2013, 10:29am hrs
Pakistani institutions are evolving rapidly. With executive authority increasingly in the hands of elected representatives, rather than dispersed among various competing institutions, the political establishment has been revitalisedand it has taken three important steps toward strengthening democracy and the rule of law. Is Pakistan, a country long prone to military coups, finally developing a well-functioning political system

On November 27, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussainacting on the prime ministers advice, as the constitution dictatesannounced that General Raheel Sharif would succeed General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as Chief of Army Staff, even though Sharif was not among the military establishments favored candidates. Unlike Kayaniwho has directed the Directorate-General of Military Operations and the Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistans spy agency)Sharif has not served in any of the positions that typically prepare someone to lead Pakistans best-funded and most influential institution.

This was not Prime Minister Nawaz Sharifs first act of defiance against the military. Just days earlier, he asked the Supreme Court to appoint a three-judge special tribunal to investigate charges of treason against Pakistans former president, General Pervez Musharraf, for imposing emergency military rule and suspending the constitution in November 2007.

The decision, which Musharraf claimed was intended to stabilise the country and stem the tide of Islamist extremism, facilitated the removal of dozens of senior judges from the Supreme Court and the provincial high courtsincluding Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Pakistans highest-ranking judge.

Chaudhrys suspension the previous March, following his refusal to bow to government pressure to resign, had incited relentless protests by Pakistans legal community and made him a symbol of the peoples desire for a fairer, more independent judicial system. In a sense, this movement, which contributed to Musharrafs electoral defeat the following February and the return of democracy to Pakistan, prefigured the 2010-2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt that sparked the Arab Spring.

Musharraf will be tried under Article Six of Pakistans constitution, according to which any person who abrogates or subverts or suspends or holds in abeyancethe Constitution by use of force or show of force or by any other unconstitutional means shall be guilty of high treason. Parliament has defined high treason as a capital offence.

By appointing a special tribunal to try Musharraf, the Sharif government is sending a strong signal to the militaryparticularly its senior commandersthat they are not above the law. This message is especially important now, given doubts about the governments resolve stemming from its decision last June to drop high-treason charges against Musharraf for leading, while serving as Chief of Army Staff, the 1999 coup against the elected government, headed by Sharif himself.

The Pakistani governments third move to tame the military was the announcement that Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, the Supreme Courts second most senior judge, would succeed Chaudhry, who was reinstated in 2009, after his mandatory retirement this year. (Jillani will serve for only seven months before he, too, retires.) By establishing the seniority rule for the most important Supreme Court appointment, Sharif has depoliticised the process.

These three moves promise, at long last, to establish civilian control over the military and ensure judicial independence. This would put Pakistan on sounder political footing than several other large Muslim countries, which are currently engaged in similarbut far less successfulefforts to institute more accountable governance.

For example, in Bangladesh, the executivenamely, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League governmentis attempting to monopolise political power. The judiciary already does the executives bidding; if current plans succeed, the ruling party will soon dominate the legislature as well.

Although the Bangladeshi military is watching events unfold with some apprehension, it lacks the will to install a caretaker government, as it did in 2007, when it brought peace and stability to the country by establishing a non-partisan technocratic administration. Unfortunately, unlike Sharifs actions in Pakistan, this effort did not spur the development of a more stable political order.

In Egypt, supporters of the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood are still battling the army and security forces, which deposed him in July. With the liberal opposition apparently unable to create a political organisation capable of challenging the Brotherhood within a recognised frameworkand, indeed, largely supporting the military coupEgypts fate is increasingly being decided on the street. Even in Turkey, where the rule of law is relatively strong and the constitution well established, the opposition has failed to organise a credible political party with broad public support.

Thanks to the efforts of Sharifs government, Pakistan now has reasonably well-developed political parties, which compete in regularly scheduled elections; an autonomous judiciary capable of defending the constitution; and a military that appears to have accepted civilian control. After nearly seven decades of tumult, Pakistan may soon serve as a model for other large Muslim countries.

The author, former finance minister of Pakistan and vice president of the World Bank, is currently chairman of the Institute of Public Policy in Lahore

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.