The Pulse

Democracy and Judicial Activism in Pakistan

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The Pulse

Democracy and Judicial Activism in Pakistan

Is growing judicial activism in Pakistan coming at the expanse of democracy in the country?

Democracy and Judicial Activism in Pakistan
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

Last Thursday, the Islamabad High Court disqualified Khawaja Asif, the foreign minister of Pakistan, as a member of the parliament for not disclosing his employment details abroad. The court has barred Asif, who is also a senior member of the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), from holding public office for life. The ruling party, which remains at the receiving end of judicial activism in Pakistan, has suffered a serious blow with Asif’s disqualification.

Apparently, the judicialization of Pakistani politics is in full swing. Questions are being asked about the growing outreach of the judiciary and how much judicial activism can be exercised without breaching the country’s constitution. The current head of Pakistan’s Supreme Court has publicized his role more as an elected politician who is eager to comment on the parliament’s role publicly rather than serving his institution objectively.

While almost two million cases are pending in Pakistani courts, for some time now, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has remained focused on undermining the role of the parliament and elected officials in the country. The Chief Justice of Pakistan has been in the news lately for visiting hospitals, schools, and keeping himself updated on the developmental speed of infrastructure projects rather than impartially and faithfully performing his duties in the constitutional domain. The courts in Pakistan have increasingly taken on the role of elected officials rather than ensuring that their growing influence in the country is actually becoming the strength of the parliament which has historically remained vulnerable to other institutional pressures, particularly the military establishment.

The growing judicial activism is clearly at the expanse of parliamentary sovereignty and supremacy. The lawmaking process in Pakistan, which according to the constitution should offer legitimacy to the judicial structure, has virtually become dependent on courts and whims of judges. It’s unfortunate that courts in Pakistan have become a party to undemocratic designs to keep the country’s lawmakers weaker.

The recent verdicts that the Supreme Court of Pakistan has doled out to the PML-N are clearly going to impact the result of upcoming general elections. The targeting of the ruling party and its candidates is clearly going to undermine its ability to gain a clear majority in the next general elections. A hung parliament appears to be a likely scenario in the upcoming elections, possibly increasing national dependency on the military establishment and its allies in the judiciary even with respect to basic functionality.

Political parties and politicians have supported the Supreme Court’s controversial decisions only because they serve narrow political interests in the short run. Undermining an institution whose credibility and authority is already under threat doesn’t serve people who belong to the same institution. On the other hand, it only isolates their ability to govern and carry out those duties that the country’s constitution requires in the first place. Opportunist political parties that stand to gain from the judiciary’s questionable activism against the PML-N are soon going to be at the receiving end of the same activism once they are in the power themselves.

While the country’s highest court is keen to pass verdicts on these so-called constitutional violations that elected officials may have committed, the court has no interest in questioning the extra-constitutional interventions of the military establishment that has always undermined the authority of elected officials in Pakistan. Recently, the Supreme Court barred a lower court from questioning the military’s role in the Faizabad fiasco by saying that it “fell outside the judicial domain.”

Clearly, the judiciary has become an extension of the military’s constitutional arm: as long as the judiciary continues to take on politicians questioning the military’s role and interests, it will be protected. However, doing otherwise may cost the judiciary its so-called activism and growing but controlled institutional role against the parliament.

In the end, it’s ironic that democratic forces in Pakistan continue to fight to make space for nondemocratic forces and interests in the country.