May 032008

While the promise of restoring judges may have been an easy one to make when the bounty of power was a potentiality rather than an actuality, it has become an increasingly cumbersome one to keep now that the PPP leads the government

The issue of deposed judges and the strain it is putting on the coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party is a good study in the dynamics of coalition politics — especially in a country where democratic governance has traditionally been weak.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz wants to hold the PPP to the promise made in the Murree Declaration — to reinstate the deposed judges without any hemming and hawing. The language was unequivocal; the Declaration promised that “the deposed judges would be restored, on the position as they were on November 2, 2007, within 30 days of the formation of the federal government through a parliamentary resolution”.

However, recent statements by PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari as well as other party spokespersons have called into question he “adventurism” of the previous Supreme Court and suggested that the promise may still be open to discussion.

This most recent episode of the controversy, augmented as it is by implied threats from the PMLN to leave the coalition, is representative of the inherent dynamics of coalition politics. At the same time the presence of a coalition partner, whose conflicting political goals can interfere with the exercise of power of the ruling party, is designed to serve as a check on those in government.

In other words, while it is tempting to view the fragile nature of the coalition — in this case the possibility of the PMLN withdrawing from the coalition and throwing governance into disarray — as a worrisome development, its dynamics suggest otherwise.

In this sense, the nature of the issue of disagreement is irrelevant. What’s important is that both parties, because of a divided mandate, are forced to work with each other even when their political goals conflict.

While the PPP does not believe that it was elected on the mandate of restoring the deposed judges, the PMLN is ardently committed to the restoration of judges and the removal of President Musharraf. Both parties are also determined to follow the mandate they believe they are representing. This throws up the necessity of a compromise on the issue, not one dictated by their particular proclivities toward each other but rather by the reality that without each other they cannot continue to wield power.

In this way the dynamics of the coalition, and the fact that it is integral to the sustenance of democratic governance in Pakistan, are providing what Pakistan’s institutions have failed to deliver: a check on the power of the ruling party.

The effects of this dynamic in the case of the PPP are obvious. The past week saw the issuance of myriad statements regarding the judges issue: on Monday, PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari in a televised interview suggested that reinstatement would come via a process of constitutional “reform” rather than the outright reinstatement implied in the Murree Declaration (he went so far as to say that he “had been victimised by judges in the past” and suggested thus that more far-reaching reforms were needed).

Zardari’s position represents not only his personal misgivings regarding the judicial process in Pakistan but also crucial facts regarding how any executive views co-equal branches of government that can serve as checks on their power.

In simple terms, while the promise of restoring judges may have been an easy one to make when the bounty of power was a potentiality rather than an actuality, it has become an increasingly cumbersome one to keep now that the PPP leads the government. The fears of an unfettered judiciary are real: outright reinstatement may make constitutional sense and make inroads in terms of strengthening legal institutions but politically speaking it strengthens one branch of the government (judiciary) at the risk of leaving the other (legislative) flailing.

The point thus to be considered is that while restoring the judiciary may make sense in terms of correcting past wrongs and making an overt move away from the Musharraf era, it makes little political sense for the PPP which stands to create yet another check on its own power: not only would the party have to manage a fragile coalition but also deal with a judiciary that would have no compunctions against second-guessing the government’s every move.

The question then becomes quite simply: how many checks on a democratic government are too many?

The architecture of parliamentary democracy (separation of the branches of government) is designed to make governmental decision-making a process in which no one party dominates and all are forced to compromise. In the context of Pakistan, an emerging democracy where institutions are weak and often unable to exercise the power to “check” each other through the attenuated process of democratic decision-making, the existence of such checks on the power is both a good and bad thing.

It can be seen as a fortuitous end to the unilateral forms of decision-making and power-grabs that have defined democratic governance in the past, even if it is through annoying prodding of a strong coalition partner forcing the government to compromise on certain issues. At the same time, the existence of too many checks can also lead to the possibility of paralysing governmental decision-making, such that few policies are actually transformed into legislation and governance becomes a series of protracted stalemates.

In the case of the current wrangling over restoring judges then, the issue of whether or not to compromise is a particularly thorny one for the PPP, especially if they back down and allow the judges to be reinstated without any conditions, as promised in the Murree Declaration, adding in the process an emboldened judiciary to the existing checks confronting their power.

But if they refuse outright they risk a collapsed coalition and perhaps a loss of power. In either case, the seeming tumult of these first few months of democratic politics in Pakistan, accompanied as it is by the attendant political wrangling, represents how the architecture of parliamentary democracy is fostering, through its inherent mechanisms, a politics of compromise that may be imperfect but is far from authoritarian.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

Source: Daily Times, 3/5/2008

 Posted by at 8:47 pm

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