Rule of Law in Pakistan

June 25, 1993

In what well could be a landmark decision, Pakistan's Supreme Court has overruled President Ghulam Ishaq Khan's dismissal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the National Assembly. Democracy and the rule of law have had a hard time in Pakistan's 45 years of independence. The judges of Pakistan's highest court have given them an important boost.

Mr. Ishaq Khan and Mr. Sharif have been engaged in a power struggle centered on the president's constitutional power to fire the prime minister and dissolve the nation's elected parliament. The indirectly elected president resolved the struggle by invoking this extreme power seven weeks ago. Now the Supreme Court has said he could not do it, though it has not explained why. And Mr. Ishaq Khan has gracefully accepted the decision, without invoking emergency powers he retains.

Equally to the point, the Pakistani Army has kept out of the political fray. For most of its history since it split off from the old British India, Pakistan has been more or less governed by military leaders. The authority to depose an elected national government was inserted into the constitution just eight years ago to solidify the power of its last military dictator, Mohammed Zia al-Huq. Since his death in 1988 the army has avoided overt intervention in civil politics, even when some of its top officers have been forced into retirement.

Pakistani politics remain tangled even without a constitutional struggle and military intervention. Like some of his civilian predecessors, Mr. Sharif is a democrat when it suits his needs. His power in the National Assembly is constantly under attack by his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto (whose removal from office under the same constitutional provision by Mr. Ishaq Khan in 1990 was upheld by the Supreme Court). Powerful provincial governments are hostile to Mr. Sharif and to each other.

All the same, the placid acceptance of the Supreme Court decision encourages and strengthens the forces of true representative government in Pakistan. Until it publishes the reasoning behind its ruling, the court will not make clear where the balance of power lies between the presidency and parliamentary leadership. But it will already have staked out a power base of its own comparable to that of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Then it will be time enough for Pakistan's political leaders to concentrate on the country's economic and social problems rather than on factional infighting.

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