This week’s Economist magazine has a rather odd take on the Chief Justice of Pakistan Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The article paints him as a manipulator, usurper and as someone at times even pursuing a personal vendetta. It is ironic that the Economist chose a word as strong as usurper in a week that an actual dictator and murderer was thrown off his throne. Surely one would feel some queasiness when using such a strong word for a man of law? I also find it ironic that while the Egyptian usurper, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown due to populist rage, the man labeled as usurper by The Economist was brought into ‘power’ by the same route.
The author(s) claims that many actions taken by the Chief Justice since his return to the Supreme Court, has been to hurt the ruling Zardari regime. The Economist claims that Iftikhar Chaudhry detests Zardari and the government, that he looks down on the parliament and that he’s too driven to take executive decisions himself and hound it to carry out orders of relatively dubious nature. It is this hatred of Zardari and a patronizing, disrespectful attitude towards the parliament that is driving much of the activities in the top most court of law in Pakistan.
However, if we were to engage in a little thought experiment and if we imagined Iftikhar Chaudhry to be an honourable man, who is sometimes prone to anger and erred at times, but nonetheless, overall he remained a patient and astute judge, honest, holding good intentions and intent on upholding the law and holding the executive to account.
What would we expect from the person described above, a portrayal one-hundred and eighty degrees from the one taken by the Economist? The simple answer is that we’d expect more or less what Iftikhar Chaudhry and his colleagues in the Supreme Court have actually done since their return.
The Supreme Court pursued the case of Zardari’s Swiss accounts: this is a case that has been proven against Zardari and according to most neutral, well-informed lawyers, Zardari’s defense in this matter was riddled with holes. Should an honest judge, who wishes to rid the corridors of power of corruption, not begin accountability at the very top? Do we have to force ourselves to see vendetta here when we can see simple accountability at work?
There is no other reason to believe that the court has targeted the government in any particular way. It is only natural that the federal government, with the most power, responsibility and resources will be courting trouble more often than other more minor players. This greater power obviously gives them greater opportunities to misuse it and hence, a greater focus by the courts is surely normal. The court has also taken cases against the army as well as politicians from other parties. Even after accounting for the aforementioned facts, what has held the court back from taking many more cases from other parties is actually not any friendliness towards them, but the fact that (i) Pakistan People’s Party was one of the largest beneficiaries of the NRO and that (ii) the organization that would have pursued cases objectively against all parties, the National Accountability Bureau, has actually been weakened by the government itself. The court surely cannot be expected to take on the responsibilities of the police.
The court has also shown extraordinary respect for the parliament. Whenever Iftikhar Chaudhry speaks outside the court, his focus has essentially always been upholding the supremacy of the parliament, furthering the democratic process, building institutions to eliminate corruption and improving governance.
Whenever the court has given legal verdicts, it has done the utmost to respect parliament. In the case of NRO, the law could have been outrightly rejected, so feeble was its basis. However, the court chose a conciliatory and friendly approach and it gave the parliament a chance to act and decide whether they’d vote for or against the NRO. The court handed the baton to the representatives of the nation, instead of deciding the matter itself.
The same procedure took place with regard to the 18th constitutional amendment. There were at least a few parts that, according to a variety of experts, the court could have struck down. Instead, the court didn’t tinker much with the amendment and the one change it did deem necessary, it demanded parliament to reconsider that clause, again avoiding any potential clash.
The court was reluctant to involve politicians too much in the choice of judges. There can be differing opinions on this matter, however, I cannot see how one can use this decision to show the judges were patronizing towards the parliament. The parliament is very weak and it really doesn’t make the most important decisions in the country – is this news to anyone? The real decisions will be taken by Zardari and a few close aides, something that could have given politicians a chance to manipulate the choices of judges to their ends. While the parliament should be empowered more – eventually – it’s clear that in the current circumstances, it would be unwise to allow politicians to meddle too much in an institution that is finally being more honest and competent and shedding its legacy of toeing the line of dictators.
There’s no doubt that the court has erred at times. One rare occasions, anger and impatience at the intransigence of the government led it to give orders that it should not have given. However, these are minor mistakes when one sees the respect the judiciary has shown to the parliament as an institution and the judgments and precedence it has set to stop the path of future dictatorships from taking over civilian institutions.