There is an institutional power struggle behind the ‘contempt of court’ debate


    So what else is new?

    By talking about the “respect of vote,”

    Sharif has tried to highlight the longstanding debate about the civilian’s weakened role

    in the state despite a democratic setup in place.


    Confrontation between Pakistan’s judiciary and executive has been as old as the history of any constitutional crisis in the country.


    So traditionally, this is how both institutions have evolved.


    Historically, both institutions have wrestled for the control of power, in process undermining institutional balance and independence each other. Primarily this has happened due to reasons that are generally used to define executives’ weak position vis-a-vis the military establishment. While judiciary was strengthened under the British raj in the subcontinent, in post-colonial context, Pakistan inherited a broken judicial system that was always prone to outside and unconstitutional influences. At times, the executive was ready to reconcile with the military-bureaucratic establishment to undermine constitutional role of the country’s courts. On other occasions, the judiciary has done the same: collaborating with the establishment to undermine executive’s role in the name of accountability and fairness. One of the most notorious judgments which have taken place in Pakistan’s history deals with the execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, where General Zia ul Haq used an institutionalmechanism through the country’s court system to further his political interests.


    What is happening in Pakistan these days reflects the historic struggle between the both institutions. Recently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by offering a very vague verdict. The larger issue that was under scrutiny regarding the Sharif family’s corruption is still part of the investigation with NAB. The court with such verdict has set a precedent that is surely going to deepen the existing imbalance and scuffle between the `Judiciary and executive. Speculations are rife whether the decision was dictated by the non-civilian forces, which given Pakistan’s history, cannot be ruled out.


    In response, while the ruling party has accepted the court’s decision, it has termed the verdict a premeditated outcome, largely influenced in order to undermine the civilian government. In this regard, Sharif after his unceremonious disqualification has attempted to build a narrative which establishes the supremacy of the executive. By talking about the “respect of vote,” Sharif has tried to highlight the longstandingdebate about the civilian’s weakened role in the state despite a democratic setup in place. The court has termed Sharif’s outburst a “contempt of court” which means either he has to accept that what he said publicly was not aimed at the judiciary or he accepts the verdict and respects the court’s constitutional authority.


    On Sharif’s part, the recent outburst toward the judiciary doesn’t serve him well politically, for he is targeting the court system at a time when his own position in constitutional, moral and political terms is weakened. By targeting the court, Sharif should not expect that an earlier decision of the former regarding the latter’s role in the country’s politics will be overturned or changed in anyway. However, Sharif understands that if court’s rulings are in any way influenced then contempt of court is going to be a “nonissue,” for the NAB’s investigation against Sharif’s immediate family is the major verdict, which is probably going to define his legacy and future role in Pakistan’s politics.


    Sharif’s confrontation with judiciary is not new. In 1997, Sharif developed severe tussle with Chief Justice Sajjad Shah over the appointment of judges in the SupremeCourt and undermining his government. Historians have argued that Sharif’s tussle with Shah was personal for the latter was the only judge who in 1993, refused to restore Sharif’s government. Shah in 1997 charged Sharif with contempt of court. However, Sharif, like in the present case, refused to reconcile with the court and rather went to his vote base to challenge the court’s institutional base. Eventually, Sharif amended Pakistan’s contempt of court law, giving Prime Minister an option to appeal which suspends the conviction while appeal is being heard. Sharif’s act of amending the contempt of court law was seen as a direct attack on the judiciary’s independence.

    The difference between 1997 and 2017 is that back then Sharif was relatively in better political position than now. In 2012, Prime Minister Gillani was handed acontempt of court charge for not writing a letter to Swiss authorities for opening corruption cases against Zardari. The issues died after achieving its political mileage within a few a months.


    Unfortunately the tradition has continued since, allowing non-civilian powers to use both institutions against each other for their own broad institutional interests. It’s unfortunate that both the executive and the judiciary have wrestled to gain power in `their respective favours rather than working as independent institutions to lift the country out of a number of constitutional crises.


    Sadly, the present contempt of court debate between Sharif and courts is going to meet the same end where institutions are undermined for personal or non-constitutional gains.