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Institutions as battlegrounds

Maleeha Lodhi
01 Mar 2023 00:02:19 | Update: 01 Mar 2023 00:02:19
Institutions as battlegrounds

The ongoing political confrontation between the government and opposition has assumed a new, more dangerous nature. It is now pitting state institutions against each other, bringing some into disrepute while pushing almost all of them into the vortex of political controversy. This is leading to national chaos. Several developments in recent days attest to this.

To start with, an unseemly public spat took place between President Arif Alvi and the Election Commission of Pakistan. 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. 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, ECP turned to the attorney general who said the president did not have this power.

Soon after, the chief justice of the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of the matter, which he described as being of “high constitutional importance”. A nine-member bench was established to determine who has constitutional authority to fix the election date. Hearings began immediately with varying opinions expressed by SC judges.

Never before in the country’s tortured political history has a public clash taken place between the two state institutions of the Presidency and ECP. The matter now rests with the Supreme Court but an unfortunate record has been set of two constitutional bodies in head-on collision — with the executive and Presidency also at loggerheads.

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. Every state institution is now caught in the cross hairs of the raging political storm.

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. Both sides seek to mount pressure on the courts. The dramatic manner in which Khan registered his presence in the Lahore High Court last week, accompanied en route by thousands of supporters, aimed to do just this. 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 LHC 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. Already one Supreme Court judge has questioned whether there was a basis for suo motu action on the election date issue. 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 ex-army supremo of conspiring to remove him and imposing a “corrupt PDM government” on the country. Scathing comments about Khan attributed to Bajwa by a journalist, who met him, further fanned this controversy and fuelled a war of words. 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”.