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A political turf war between Pakistan's military, government and judiciary is crippling the country.
of the civilian government and from a press that is asking more questions than it did a decade ago.
Although the government has been tripped up by its clashes with the military and the courts, the public hasn't forgiven it for presiding over a period of economy disaster. Double-digit inflation has plagued Pakistan for the greater part of the government’s tenure, and foreign direct investment has dropped significantly in the face of security concerns. A severe energy crisis has also hampered economic growth, which is already not half of what it needs to be to sustain the yearly influx of new workers.
The media has also played an important role in the the military-judiciary-government power equation, said Ali Dayan Hassan, director of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. In the last 10 years, it has presented more alternative views than Pakistan has ever seen before, but it still faces taboos.
“You have a situation where there are three actors engaging in a political turf-war and the media is only really free to hold one of them in account. It is not that some media do not try and do it, but if the prime minister can be summoned for contempt of court, so can any journalist,” he said. Many journalists in Pakistan censor themselves to protect against possible retaliation from the military, the courts or the government.
The courts, it seems, much like the military, appear to be interested in more than the fair application of the rule of law. Opponents say it has ventured too far into the political realm, which could ultimately hurt the country’s efforts at democratic reform.
“The Supreme Court has literally taken over executive functions. Even if we take the chief justice’s intentions positively, it is still dangerous. It has to keep status quo. It is not meant to be a revolutionary institution,” said Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, a lawyer from Lahore.
The Supreme Court has intervened on political decisions repeatedly since its chief was reinstated. It nullified the carbon tax a week after the government introduced it, for instance. It also suspended the privatization of state companies and even, at one point, set sugar prices, a move many saw as an obvious over-stepping of its responsibilities.
Average Pakistanis have also accused the court of targeting the government unfairly, leading to conspiracy theories that the court is being supported by the military, which has at times acted openly hostile toward the current civilian leadership.
A wave of public criticism may have persuaded the Supreme Court to pursue the case of the eleven prisoners, as well as another, 15-year old case that accuses the ISI of using taxpayer’s money to support political opposition parties in the 1990s.
For others, the Supreme Court is a modern judicial Robin Hood. Analysts say it has recovered tens of billions of rupees (comparable to hundreds of millions of US dollars) by pursuing corruption cases.
“Imagine, had there been no judicial activism, Pakistan would have been in further abyss,” said Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for The News, a daily newspaper based in Islamabad.
The rise of the judiciary comes at a time when the original battle, the one between the government and the military, is beginning to change. Lacking popular support, the military is no longer able launch an overt take-over, as it had before — three times in the last 64 years.
Rashid Rehman, editor of the Daily Times, another Pakistani newspaper, said that opposition political parties are no longer willing to back a coup, which has forced the military to devise other ways to vie for power.
A battle between the two erupted earlier this year with the surfacing of an unsigned memo, allegedly written by Pakistan’s government, that asked for Washington’s help in preventing a military take-over.
The courts, of all institutions, will likely be forced to resolve the fight, which has been dubbed Memogate by the media. A judicial commission is set to hear the main witness, the Pakistani-American Mansoor Ijaz, who first revealed the existence of the memo last year, on Feb. 22, via a video link from the Pakistani embassy in London.
The turf-war between the three groups has two possible outcomes, said Hassan, one very good and one very bad.
“Either this process will lead to all stakeholders to understand the limits of their domains, or it will lead to confrontation and a break down of constitutional order,” he said.