Can a convicted man serve the nation?

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The prevailing constitutional and political situation in the country is akin to the old pattern of Pakistani politics, wherein, after a brief confrontation between two constitutional offices the opposition jumps into the arena with a detailed and comprehensive plan of agitation, and in the process paves the way for the president, who used to be equipped with the powers to dissolve the assemblies and send everybody packing home. Fortunately the president no longer has the power to dissolve the assemblies and dismiss the government. The reason Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz is oft accused of being a ‘soft’ opposition is because under the prevailing constitutional setup, its capacity, as an opposition party, to disrupt the political process is not as immense as it used to be in 1990s. Thus the former prime minister and current opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has to stomach the accusations from his critics that, as an opposition party they are good for nothing. Perhaps this is why Sharif wanted to prove everybody wrong when he raised the slogan: quit as prime minister or face the country-wide protest movement.

The immediate constitutional issue facing the country is whether a convicted man can continue as the chief executive of the country. The opposition says Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gailani has been disqualified from the National Assembly due to his conviction in the contempt of court case. Opposition leaders think that any deviation from this legal and constitutional path will lead the country towards chaos and anarchy. On the other hand, the government is insisting that the question of the prime minister’s qualification doesn’t arise in the prevailing situation.  Media reports suggest that in the latest cabinet meeting the members suggested that the Supreme Court should be dealt with aggressively.

To me this situation seems to be a replay of events in the Supreme Court back in 1997 when the then prime minister, Sharif, was faced with contempt of court proceedings. The capital was abuzz with speculations that Sharif would be disqualified once he was convicted by the Supreme Court. It would be instructive to examine the response of the then government to that situation,not with the intention to enter into any political polemics or to prove anybody wrong, but solely to point out the similarity in the responses of ruling politicians towards any threat to their survival no matter how high the cost is. Sharif’s response in 1997 was harsh and crud. He had the contempt of court law amended in the parliament to forestall the judgment of the court. He made his intention known that he would make the parliamentary committee summon the chief justice and question him on the charges of breaching the parliamentary privilege.

One concern of the political class was as genuine then as it is now: that no one should be allowed to invent a constitutional and legal mechanism to oust an elected prime minister – apart from the existing constitutional procedure of no-confidence vote given in the constitution. Ousting the prime minister by way of his conviction in a contempt case after which he loses his national assembly seat is tantamount to inventing such a mechanism. Given the history of institutional imbalance in the country, where, powerful unrepresentative institutions are allowed to oust elected representatives by using such invented mechanisms, it is likely that the power balance will further shift toward non-representative and non-elected institutions. Part of the problem is the absence of strong traditions of parliamentary democracy in the country’s political culture. If we had an uninterrupted parliamentary tradition such petty questions would not have given rise to national crises. For instance a court conviction could have convinced the prime minister to simply resign from his office, without having to fear that his resignation could lead to non-representative institutions finishing off rest of the political process.

Many independent analysts do not disagree with the point that ousting the prime minister through an invented mechanism can weaken the parliamentary democracy irreparably. The political class has to understand that they are not in a battlefield, despite the mines that have been planted on the path they have to tread. So aggression as suggested by some cabinet members could prove to be self-destructive. For surely, keeping the whole system on track, is primarily their responsibility. They have to understand that courts in any society play a foundational role in keeping the society from drifting towards anarchy. Head-on-collision must be avoided at every cost.

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