Courts vs. executive in Pakistan |
Arab News - 10 August, 2012
What most ordinary Pakistanis crave for their country, is stability and the chance to get on with their lives, free of worries about security and with a reliable government able to address the myriad economic and social challenges. None of this is currently available.
The rockiness of President Asif Ali Zardari’s administration has once again been highlighted by the summoning of his new prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, by the Supreme Court to explain why he, like his predecessor, Yousaf Raza Gilani, has refused to reopen a corruption case against the president. In June Gilani, who had stone-walled repeated demands from the Supreme Court to act against his chef, was found guilty of contempt of court. This conviction disqualified him from holding public office and Zardari was forced to replace him with Ashraf.
On the face of it, the whole sorry business now looks set to repeat itself, with Ashraf suffering the same fate as his predecessor. The problem is that, for the safety of Pakistan, this standoff cannot be allowed to continue.
Judge Asif Saeed Khosa of the Supreme Court is, in the view of many, acting constitutionally in insisting that an investigation be pursued against anyone, be he peasant or president. For its part, the president’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) argues that the government has discretion as to what inquiries should or should not be taken up. Besides, says the PPP, the Supreme Court is pursuing a political agenda or, as one PPP legislator said during the Gilani case, “is on a power trip.” And there have indeed been times when supreme court judges have seemed to overstep the line of impartiality in their comments about the case.
It is however, perhaps easier to understand what is going on, if the rhetoric is stripped away and the core issues examined. The allegations of corruption against the president stem from when his murdered wife Benazir Bhutto was prime minister in the 1990s. He is supposed to have extracted millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks and stashed much of the money in Swiss bank accounts.
Corruption has bedeviled Pakistan since its creation in 1947, robbing the country of capital that could have funded economic growth, while turning the functioning of the bureaucracy and most of the civil servants who run it, into an unofficial and often high tax of investment and initiative. If politicians and civil servants are corrupt, then business will decide, understandably, that there is little point in playing by the rules, as only a fool would do so. Therefore they also have been pressed to join in the general corruption, resulting in a society that is cynical about itself and where, it seems, little can be done to bring about any changes.
But there are still many Pakistanis with strong moral values who deplore the bribery free-for-all. They are therefore enthusiastic about Judge Khosa and his fellow justices and hope that their current confrontation with the executive will lead to a wider campaign against corruption. Ordinary citizens are fed up with hearing the empty promises of up-and-coming politicians to clean up public life. It seems to them that the courts may be able to do a better job of confronting financial criminality, at all levels.
Turning to the allegations against the president, it is interesting that the Swiss authorities, who had opened an enquiry into accounts held by Zardari (which held $ 60 million), his late wife and some associates, have since suspended the investigation. PPP officials insist this proves that Zardari is guilty of no crime. This may indeed be true. However at the same time Pakistan’s supreme court has decided that an investigation should be carried out. Prime Minister Ashraf must obey the law. Indeed the president, who has all along protested his innocence, should be grateful for the chance to prove it in open court.
However in the end, this is not about the fate of the president, his prime minister or even Judge Khosa; it is about the fate of Pakistan. Public servants should put the wider interests of their country before their own narrow concerns. This chaotic nation of some 170 million people, needs stable and honest government, which obeys the law and demonstrates plainly, that it is not yet one more get-rich-quick administration, anxious to use political power for personal enrichment.