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March 31,2018

The Economist commentary on Pakistan: Boot on neck, gavel over head for poll winner

Rafiq Mangat

LAHORE: Whoever wins [the 2018 elections], one thing appears certain: they will have a boot on their neck and a gavel poised to strike them over the head, says the Economist in a commentary on Pakistan.

The English-language weekly newspaper says the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mr Justice Saqib Nisar is not Pakistan’s first celebrity judge. Before him Iftikhar Chaudhry too interfered in all manner of areas typically seen as beyond the court’s remit. Most lawyers blanch at the judiciary’s return to the headlines. The chief justice has launched around 30 suo motu cases since the beginning of the year, even as the judiciary groans under a backlog of 3m pending cases. His actions distort national politics. His impromptu visits to hospitals prompt coverage harmful to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the ruling party. Most of his complaints focus on Punjab, the party’s stronghold and other decisions clash with the PML-N’s policies. “He’s filling the role of the opposition,” the newspaper quotes a lawyer as saying and warns that ‘yet evenopposition politicians ought to be wary of the Supreme Court’s hubris’.

According to the Economist, two institutions [the establishment and the judiciary] offer one another undisguised support. It says that unlike Ifikhar Chaudhry, Justice Saqib Nisar has avoided topics the establishment would rather not discuss. “This month Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of army staff, warned that the armed forces would stand behind the judiciary in any dispute with parliament.” The newspaper quotes a lawyer as pointing out that politicians have ceded more and more ground to the courts. It says that parties now regularly file legal petitions aimed at disqualifying their rivals, instead of leaving voters to adjudicate their disputes. The army also has no shortage of supporters in politics.

The UK-based newspaper fears that this two-pronged attack on democracy is only likely to get worse. It says a corruption trial may soon put Nawaz Sharif behind bars and that after the elections, Pakistan People's Party and the PTI might be able to form a coalition to remove the PML-N from office. “Whoever wins, one thing appears certain: they will have a boot on their neck and a gavel poised to strike them over the head,” says the Economist commentary.

The court is cramping the space for democracy, argues Babar Sattar, a lawyer and columnist, in the Economist commentary. The newspaper says that in disqualifying Nawaz Sharif, the former leader of the PML-N, as prime minister for failing to live up to the injunction in Article 62 of the constitution that politicians be “honest” and “righteous”, it set a potentially sweeping precedent.

On March 2, Chief Justice Saqib Nisar doubled down. He annulled a law that allowed MPs removed from office in this way to run parties (a measure the PML-N had passed on Mr Sharif’s behalf), on the feeblest of grounds. “Faithful adherence to Article 62,” Mr Nisar writes, “provides a recipe for cleansing the fountainheads of the State from persons who suffer from character flaws.”

Such talk is music to the army’s ears. It was under its aegis that Article 62 was slipped into the 1973’s constitution, to control civilian politicians.

Excerpts from the Economist report follow:

“Mr Nisar is not Pakistan’s first celebrity judge. In 2008 Iftikhar Chaudhry helped to oust General Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator, overturning the Supreme Court’s previously pliant reputation, which it had gained by rubber-stamping a series of coups.

“The chief justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar has a busy schedule. Consumed in recent months by a mission to deliver 'clean air, clean water and pure milk' to Pakistan, he is spending a Saturday hearing 16 cases that he has taken up suo motu, or on his own initiative. Crowds throng the courthouse in Lahore, the capital of the state of Punjab, drawn by the spectacle of a judge dispensing verdicts. The powder, he rules, must be relabelled post-haste. After milk, he turns to the owners of a factory allegedly dumping effluent into a river. An elderly villager in a white turban breaks forward, begging the justice to punish them. 'I cannot let my children be poisoned,' thunders Mr Nisar.

“In one [suo motu case], he was so moved by the plight of a medical student unable to pay his $3,000 school fees, he said the Supreme Court would pay instead. He has also delved into such pressing matters as the quality of chicken feed (he launched a commission on standards), even as the judiciary groans under a backlog of 3m pending cases.

“The Supreme Court is obliged to act because of the indolence of the executive, say the judge’s supporters. His assault on dodgy private medical colleges could limit the growing number of doctors unsure of where to find the appendix. Bank employees have the chief justice to thank for raising their paltry pension, from $13 to $70 a month. In response to the charge that he exceeds his brief, Mr Nisar points to the dire state of many public services. 'Call me any time I am crossing a line,' he told a journalist, 'but why should not the ordinary people of Rawalpindi have clean water?'

“Unfortunately, it is not clear that the chief justice can get the water purified single-handed. Worse, in the run-up to a general election due to be held this summer, Mr Nisar’s actions distort national politics. His impromptu visits to hospitals prompt coverage harmful to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the ruling party. Most of his complaints focus on Punjab, the party’s stronghold. He has threatened to 'shut down' the Orange Line, the first phase of Lahore’s new metro system, if the government does not improve health and education. Other decisions clash with the PML-N’s policies. Whereas the government promises a tax amnesty for citizens who bring money home from abroad, the chief justice has formed a commission to investigate how to seize the assets. 'He’s filling the role of the opposition,' sighs Junaid Jahangir, a barrister.

“Although the PML-N is now casting itself as the persecuted champion of democracy, the party did little to burnish it before Mr Sharif’s ousting. In four years as prime minister, Mr Sharif appeared in the National Assembly just six times.”


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