The dawning of Pakistan’s political renaissance?

Pakistani institutions are evolving rapidly. With executive authority increasingly in the hands of elected representatives, rather than dispersed among various competing institutions, the political establishment has been revitalized — and it has taken three important steps toward strengthening democracy and the rule of law.

Is Pakistan, a country long prone to military coups, finally developing a well-functioning political system?

On Nov. 27, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain — acting on the prime minister’s advice, as the constitution dictates — announced that Gen. Raheel Sharif would succeed Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as chief of army staff, even though Sharif was not among the military establishment’s favored candidates. Unlike Kayani — who has directed the Directorate-Gen. of Military Operations and the Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan’s spy agency) — Sharif has not served in any of the positions that typically prepare someone to lead Pakistan’s best-funded and most influential institution.

This was not Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s first act of defiance against the military. Just days earlier, he asked the Supreme Court to appoint a three-judge special tribunal to investigate charges of treason against Pakistan’s former president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for imposing emergency military rule and suspending the constitution in November 2007.

The decision, which Musharraf claimed was intended to stabilize the country and stem the tide of Islamist extremism, facilitated the removal of dozens of senior judges from the Supreme Court and the provincial high courts — including Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s highest-ranking judge.

Chaudhry’s suspension the previous March, following his refusal to bow to government pressure to resign, had incited relentless protests by Pakistan’s legal community and made him a symbol of the people’s desire for a fairer, more independent judicial system. In a sense, this movement, which contributed to Musharraf’s electoral defeat the following February and the return of democracy to Pakistan, prefigured the 2010-2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt that sparked the Arab Spring.

Musharraf will be tried under Article Six of Pakistan’s constitution, according to which “any person who abrogates or subverts or suspends or holds in abeyance … the Constitution by use of force or show of force or by any other unconstitutional means shall be guilty of high treason.” Parliament has defined high treason as a capital offense.

By appointing a special tribunal to try Musharraf, the Sharif government is sending a strong signal to the military — particularly its senior commanders — that they are not above the law. This message is especially important now, given doubts about the government’s resolve stemming from its decision last June to drop high-treason charges against Musharraf for leading, while serving as chief of army staff, the 1999 coup against the elected government, headed by Sharif himself.

The Pakistani government’s third move to tame the military was the announcement that Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, the Supreme Court’s second most senior judge, would succeed Chaudhry, who was reinstated in 2009, after his mandatory retirement this year. (Jillani will serve for only seven months before he retires.) By establishing the seniority rule for the most important Supreme Court appointment, Sharif has depoliticized the process.

These three moves promise, at long last, to establish civilian control over the military and ensure judicial independence. This would put Pakistan on sounder political footing than several other large Muslim countries, which are currently engaged in similar — but far less successful — efforts to institute more accountable governance.

For example, in Bangladesh, the executive — namely, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League government — is attempting to monopolize political power. The judiciary already does the executive’s bidding; if current plans succeed, the ruling party will soon dominate the legislature as well.

Although the Bangladeshi military is watching events unfold with some apprehension, it lacks the will to install a caretaker government, as it did in 2007, when it brought peace and stability to the country by establishing a nonpartisan technocratic administration. Unfortunately, unlike Sharif’s actions in Pakistan, this effort did not spur the development of a more stable political order.

In Egypt, supporters of the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood are still battling the army and security forces, which deposed him in July. With the liberal opposition apparently unable to create a political organization capable of challenging the Brotherhood within a recognized framework — and, indeed, largely supporting the military coup — Egypt’s fate is increasingly being decided on the street. Even in Turkey, where the rule of law is relatively strong and the constitution well established, the opposition has failed to organize a credible political party with broad public support.

Thanks to the efforts of Sharif’s government, Pakistan now has reasonably well-developed political parties, which compete in regularly scheduled elections; an autonomous judiciary capable of defending the constitution; and a military that appears to have accepted civilian control. After nearly seven decades of tumult, Pakistan may soon serve as a model for other large Muslim countries.

Shahid Javed Burki, former finance minister of Pakistan and vice president of the World Bank, is currently chairman of the Institute of Public Policy in Lahore. © 2013 Project Syndicate

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