News out of U.S. “ally“ Pakistan appears promising for its fragile democracy, but may actually signal a continuation of that country’s destructive political pattern. For the past two days, Sufi cleric Tahir-ul Qadri has led protests in Islamabad calling for a caretaker administration to take over for the ruling coalition, a swap he claims will help to ensure that upcoming parliamentary elections (yet to be scheduled) remain honest. Amid those protests, Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued an arrest order for Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who as minister for water and power allegedly received illegal kickbacks.
A colleague asked me: “What does this mean for Pakistani democracy?” To which I replied, “When did it ever exist?”
Certainly, any and all condemnations of public sector corruption comes as welcome news, especially in a country ruled by a tiny minority of kleptocratic elites. Still, such developments require historical background. On cleric Qadri, last week Radio Free Europe’s Daud Khan Khattak asked rhetorically “Can This Islamic Cleric Liberalize Pakistan’s Politics?“ Perhaps, but unlikely. The federal government responded quite rightly that Qadri’s demand for the government to step down—and the judiciary and the military help appoint a caretaker government—is unconstitutional. What makes Qadri’s demands especially troubling, writes Eurasia Group’s Shamila N. Chaudhary, is that the current government will be “the first time a [civilian] government in Pakistan finishes a complete term.” It seems imprudent to derail such a historic moment by emboldening Pakistan’s military, which carries a long history of dictatorship. In fact, Qadri once supported Pakistan’s former General-President Pervez Musharraf.
On that note, another prominent figure in this unfolding drama who once supported the maintenance of dictatorial authority is none other than Pakistan Supreme Court Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. In February 2000, after Musharraf overthrew democratically elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup in 1999, Chaudhry, then chief justice of the Balochistan Supreme Court, swore an oath of office under Musharraf to become a judge on Pakistan’s Supreme Court. As Pakistan analyst Seth Oldmixon points out, the court, in its own words, “validated the extra-constitutional step on the touchstone of the doctrine of state necessity and the principle of salus populi suprema lex” (Let the good of the people be the supreme law).
Spontaneous bouts of pro-democracy protests are promising, but sadly it appears that no one is innocent in this confusing political spectacle. Democracy or no democracy, though, Islamabad’s relations with Washington will likely continue its transactional nature, with a heavy and unpredictable mixture of antagonism and cooperation.