Pakistan's Powerful Chief Justice (Page 2 of 2)

There is no clear favorite in the polls, but the general expectation is that they will bring the PML-N to power. This is a relationship that has yet to be tested. The PML-N has not been in power at the federal level during the Chaudhry era. While Chaudhry has largely made decisions that are favorable to the PML-N, he has an inherent antagonism toward incumbents. And so it remains to be seen whether the PML-N, if it comes to power, and Chaudhry, can get along, especially on combatting corruption. Chaudhry could press the next government to investigate military officers and civilian beneficiaries — one of whom might be Sharif — in the aforementioned Asghar Khan case. If it comes to power, would the PML-N comply with Chaudhry’s orders or pursue a resist and delay strategy like the PPP has?

In the longer term, there is the question of how enduring Chaudhry’s legacy will be and whether the court will be able to maintain its institutional autonomy, corporate solidarity, and public popularity. Last year, Chaudhry declared unconstitutional a law that gave senior government officials immunity from contempt of court charges. Earlier, he compelled parliament to amend the constitution and create a role for the court in superior court appointments.

But it is unclear as to whether Chaudhry’s successor will have the capacity to resist efforts to clip the Supreme Court’s powers. Both the PML-N and PPP agreed in the 2006 Charter of Democracy (CoD) to create a separate Constitutional Court.  Such a move has been untenable for the PPP, but the PML-N, which has been a major proponent of the present court and the CoD, could opt to make judicial power more diffuse at the federal level.

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Chaudhry will be succeeded by Justice Tassaduq Jilani, who will be at the helm for around seven months. He will be followed by Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk, who will serve as chief justice for approximately one year. Neither Jilani nor Nasir will have a tenure as lengthy as Chaudhry’s. And neither Jilani nor Nasir have Chaudhry’s public recognition and capital to drive change. But they do seem to share Chaudhry’s penchant for judicial vigilance. And the court under Chaudhry has had a strong corporate identity: it seems to have an unusually high rate of making unanimous decisions and even has its own theme song. Though the judiciary’s power to resist the executive and legislative branches might be tempered, the judges’ solidarity will not dissolve upon Chaudhry’s retirement.

Amid the unending judicial battles at the federal level, justice has yet to meaningfully trickle down to the average Pakistani. The backlog in the entire court system consists of over a million cases, which has given rise to murderous entrepreneurs like vigilante mobs and the Taliban. The courts are overburdened. Local government and police too have capacity issues and are sullied by corruption and indifference. Before Chaudhry, the court’s greatest challenge was to deliver justice to the common man. And after Chaudhry, that will remain its greatest challenge. Reversing course will require a whole-of-government approach. But that will not be possible if Pakistan’s branches of government are at war with one another.

Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. He tweets at @arifcrafiq.

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