Institutions as battleground
The ongoing political confrontation between the government and the opposition in Pakistan has assumed a new, more dangerous nature. They are now pitting state institutions against each other, bringing some into disrepute while pushing almost all of them into the vortex of political controversy. To start with, an unseemly public spat took place between President Arif Alvi and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). This was sparked by the question of who should set the date for elections to the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies, which were dissolved in January.
President Alvi, acting in support of PTI's demand for immediate dates, asked ECP to announce dates right away. If it failed to do so, it would be responsible for violation of the constitution. He then invited the chief election commissioner for consultation. The ECP declined, saying the matter was sub judice. In a letter, it also objected to the language used by the president and said the commission was "well aware of its constitutional obligations."
This did not stop the president from unilaterally announcing April 9 as the date for provincial elections. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif slammed the move as "illegal," adding this wasn't the first time Alvi had acted "unconstitutionally." In response to the presidential announcement, the ECP turned to the attorney general who said the president did not have this power.
The root of this dispute lies in the ruling coalition's obvious reluctance to hold provincial polls within the constitutionally stipulated 90-day period. This is evident from inaction by PDM-appointed governors in the two provinces and statements by federal ministers.
The courts have now become a political battleground in the intensifying confrontation between the PDM government and Imran Khan's PTI. Unable or unwilling to resolve political disputes themselves, the two contending sides take them to court, which is expected to act as an arbiter of politics rather than law. Then if verdicts do not suit or advantage a particular party, the courts are subjected to criticism and accused of bias.
Meanwhile, PML-N leaders continue to direct criticism at the courts accusing them of "double standards." Maryam Nawaz railed against two serving judges of the Supreme Court during an address at a party rally in Sargodha. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif took aim at the judiciary in parliament to ask whether court decisions in the past were based on political considerations or the public interest.
A senior PPP leader accused the Lahore High Court of showing preferential treatment to Khan. Several judges have frequently counselled political leaders not to resort to the courts to settle political conflicts. But these entreaties have fallen on deaf ears. Taking political issues to the higher judiciary in fact distorts their role as well as makes them the subject of controversy. This risks undermining public trust in judicial institutions in an intensely polarised environment.
The pressure the power tussle is exerting on the courts is in fact quite unprecedented. It can even divide the higher judiciary. Legal counsel representing political parties now frequently object to the constitution of benches and name which judge should recuse himself from a case. Some members of the country's legal fraternity fear open clashes within and between the higher judiciary in political cases they are dealing with.
Meanwhile, former army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa has been at the receiving end of bitter criticism at different times from both sides of the political divide. When Khan was in power, Bajwa faced criticism from PML-N leaders, who accused him of being behind former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's ouster and engineering Khan's election victory in 2018.
Since Bajwa's retirement, it has been Khan's turn to accuse the former army supremo of conspiring to remove him and imposing a "corrupt PDM government" on the country. Khan wrote to the president, as supreme commander of the armed forces, asking him to "institute an immediate inquiry" against Bajwa for violating "his oath of office." Meanwhile PML-N leaders, seeking to exploit this, issued statements to breathe further life to the controversy.
The revelations in these bitter exchanges only confirmed the hybrid nature of the political arrangement that was in place during Khan's tenure. But the involvement of Pakistan's former top general in such public controversy also has implications for the army's reputation.
Obviously, what the former army chief did or didn't do cannot be disassociated from his institution. The episode, therefore, casts a negative light on the institution's role. Indeed, rarely before has the military establishment's role – and responsibility for the country's present political mess – been at the centre of so much public and media comment and critique.
It appears as if almost every state institution is now caught in the cross hairs of the political storm with its reputation being affected by this. This is pushing the country into uncharted territory where the standing, credibility and integrity of state institutions is increasingly being called into question. If public trust in institutions is eroded and their legitimacy undermined this will only leave Pakistan in a more ungovernable state.
This article was first published in Dawn, an Asia News Network (ANN) partner of The Daily Star.
Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK and UN.