Is this a sign of changing times? Has the west begun to see the man’s motive? This seems to be the most scathing commentary on Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in the last many months. This appeared in the current edition of The Economist. An overactive judiciary might undermine a fragile democracy. (AI)
Pakistan’s populist judges
PAKISTAN’S chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry (pictured above), is riding high. At a time when most of the country’s political leaders are despised as venal, lazy or inept, its senior jurist is held in esteem. People tell pollsters they trust him more than anyone. They cheer his efforts to take on the corrupt and hapless president, Asif Ali Zardari. Yet Mr Chaudhry may be crossing a line from activist judge to political usurper.
His judges pass up no chance to swipe at the government. Mr Chaudhry spent months trying to get Swiss officials to reopen a corruption case that could have toppled Mr Zardari (in Pakistan, criminal proceedings against a sitting president are prohibited). After that failed, the courts took up a thin-looking case in which the president is accused of unconstitutionally holding an office for profit. That looks vindictive: the office in question is his post as head of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
The courts quickly adopt populist causes, especially those that squeeze Mr Zardari. After an American diplomat shot dead two men in the street in Lahore last month, the mother of one victim appealed for justice on television, saying that she would trust only Mr Chaudhry to help. The High Court in Lahore promptly ordered that the diplomat, who had been arrested, must not be allowed out of the country—even if the government were to rule that he had immunity. In this case, as in many others, the judges have shown themselves to be able self-publicists. Their stance has won approving coverage.
And on the country’s illiberal but widely popular blasphemy law, the Lahore High Court intervened to forbid the president from issuing an early pardon to anyone convicted by lower courts. Before the murder last month of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab and critic of the blasphemy law, Mr Zardari had told him he was planning such a pardon. The courts seem set on boxing him in.
Perhaps the most striking evidence of judicial activism is in economic policy. In a speech in India on February 6th Mr Chaudhry lashed out at the IMF and other international bodies for imposing what he said were hypocritical policies on poor countries. That seemed intended to play well at home, just as the IMF and the government are trying to increase the tax take (only 2% of Pakistanis pay tax) and cut subsidies—unpalatable but needed medicine.
Judicial figures have meddled egregiously in economic affairs before. The courts have tried to fix the price of staple commodities such as petrol and sugar, to public cheers. But in 2009 attempts predictably missed their mark as producers hoarded stocks and the black-market price soared. It is not the court’s job, says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a commentator, to enter the executive’s domain.
The judiciary’s various efforts suggest that Mr Chaudhry is as keen as any politician to curry public favour. He likes to talk up his part in pushing out the old military regime of General Pervez Musharraf, now in exile in London. (This week the general was named as an accused by investigators looking into the 2007 murder of Benazir Bhutto.) Yet for all the judge’s talk of his “commitment to the core values of democracy”, he first accepted his post from General Musharraf in 2005, some six years after democracy was overthrown.
Adaptability is matched by appreciably greater clout. In January the 19th amendment to the constitution was signed into law, giving judges a freer hand in making judicial appointments, at the expense of politicians. An independent judiciary is welcome, says Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group, yet it is striking how hard the judges fought to reject any elected oversight. Now Mr Chaudhry is out to settle scores with nine senior judges accused of contempt of court for accepting jobs late in Mr Musharraf’s rule.
On one interpretation, all this may add up to nothing too sinister. A degree of judicial activism is needed if Mr Zardari’s government is not to enjoy an easy ride. The opposition pulls its punches, despite the government’s wretched failure in coping with huge floods last year, and its lack of progress in tackling widespread graft, reviving the economy or putting down extremist violence. Nawaz Sharif, the main opposition leader, seems not to want to bring down a civilian government before elections are due. Perhaps he does not want to rule yet, given Pakistan’s mess. Or perhaps he fears giving the army an excuse to meddle openly in politics yet again.
Another, and more troubling, interpretation is also plausible. Maybe, some observers say, the judges are getting too big for their wigs precisely because they have army support. Mr Chaudhry, witting or not, may be helping to create the conditions in which the men in uniform step in again one day. The example Pakistanis cite in private is Bangladesh’s stealthy coup in January 2007. At that time the army, fronted by technocrats, pushed aside corrupt party politicians and scrapped elections, with the tacit support of donors.
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author, notes “extraordinary co-operation” between the judges and the army in recent years in Pakistan. He points out how rarely judges pursue cases of human-rights violations by soldiers, whereas cases that hurt the government fly into the courts. The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, a more introverted figure than his predecessor, does not seem to want to take power right now. But a further collapse of order in Pakistan, which is increasingly described as a failing state, might encourage the soldiers to act. Mr Chaudhry should take care that he does not become their fall guy.