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 revitalised—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 November 27, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain—acting on the prime minister’s advice, as the constitution dictates—announced that General Raheel Sharif would succeed General 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-General 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, General Pervez Musharraf, for imposing emergency military rule and suspending the constitution in November 2007.
The decision, which Musharraf claimed was intended to stabilise 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 offence.
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