The institutions of Pakistan relegate due process to the waste basket of unnecessary tertiary concerns in their hypnotic spell to assert authority. We saw this happen recently with the superior judiciary. In an attempt to uphold one constitutional provision, the Supreme Court (SC) pillaged through all other regulatory norms, checks and balances. By doing so, it politicized the judiciary and served to turn public opinion against it. We saw the same play out with Imran Khan’s arrest in the Al-Qadir Trust case.
Regardless of how water-tight the legal case against him is, the manner in which the arrest was carried out screamed abuse of power. Similarly, the sweep up of protesting PTI supporters with no regard to their involvement in the May 9 violence is nothing short of shameful. Analysts speak of such high-handed state brutality as bad optics, but that is no longer a concern for the power brokers. Rather, it seems as if we are almost being taunted by them to call their actions out for blatant abuse. In this context, SC declaring the arrest “invalid and unlawful” was essential course correction.
Those who are still unconvinced about plotted institutional abuse should ask themselves the following questions. Is it a coincidence that the arrest happened a couple of days after Imran Khan named ISI’s Major-General Faisal Naseer for carrying out two failed assassination attempts on him? Was it mere prudency that compelled the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to deploy Rangers to break into Islamabad High Court premises?
MOI’s head Rana Sanaullah did not mince words when he recently said “either Imran Khan or us will get murdered.” His words were symbolic of the government’s do or die approach, where everything is fair game in a political battlefield that mimics the Hunger Games.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with suo motu action taken over elections delay, the fact of the matter is that there is a SC order in the field. All relevant state institutions were duty bound to take necessary action to make sure it was obeyed. But we have seen anything but that.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) unilaterally chose to extend the election date in Punjab in contravention of SC’s March 1 order. In a subsequent April 4 ruling, SC set May 14 as the new date for Punjab elections. This has also come and gone. Previously, the SC had questioned whether ECP had the authority to postpone election date. On May 4, ECP flipped the table by filing a review petition against the April 4 order, where it pleaded that courts did not have the authority to announce elections dates. And that by doing so, the Supreme Court had undermined the trichotomy of powers.
There is an argument to be made about how free and fair elections to the National Assembly will be if provincial governments in Punjab and KP are already in place and are able to use state might to influence results. But if this argument was to be used by the ECP to challenge the 90-day limit, it must have been done consecutively to, and not instead of, ensuring SC’s April 4 order was complied with. ECP’s latest stance makes it obvious they had no intention of ever complying with the order.
Of course, ECP is not the only institution to be blamed for the logjam. The government is refusing to release Rs 21 billion to the ECP as ordered by the Supreme Court. In so doing, it is abusing its authority as the custodian of the Federal Consolidated Fund (FCF). The opposition-bereft parliament has also made it clear that they will not approve any such election related expenditure post facto.
The ruling coalition staged a sit-in outside the Supreme Court, accusing Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial of bias, and demanding for him to step down. The National Assembly (NA) also unanimously adopted a motion to file a reference of misconduct against the Chief Justice, a move seen as a pre-emptive attempt to challenge contempt of court charges for refusing to abide by the SC’s April 4 order. In this government-judiciary standoff, the NA passed a draconian contempt law under the guise of parliamentary supremacy.
The Parliament is essentially defunct and, as it stands, is no position to appoint a caretaker setup to lead the country into polls, if and when a date is announced. Speaker Raja Pervez Ashraf is refusing to let PTI MNAs attend parliamentary sessions even though the ECP’s notification regarding the resignation of PTI MNAs was suspended by both the Sindh and Lahore high courts.
This mess is exacerbated by the fact that the current opposition thrives off of pitting state institutions against each other. Army, judiciary, NAB, ECP, Police, parliament and political parties have all found themselves in and out of favour with PTI over the past ten years or so based on electoral and political expediency.
In this merry-go-round of palace politics, we forget that the real threat to our democracy stems from the institutional crisis that we find ourselves in. Ambassador Touqir Hussain has written about the fact that free and fair elections and an orderly change of government, are only just the form of a democracy. The substance comes from free and representative institutions, constitutional liberalism, strong rule of law, and a just and equitable order.
When we think of the current crisis in these terms, does it make a difference if elections are held together or separately, within or beyond 90 days? Democracy is supposed to be representative of the masses and serve the needs of the poor. Elections and a change in leadership alone will not do that.