ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s coalition government has held together for more than four years, marking a democratic milestone for a country challenged by coups and military rule. But critics say an ongoing legal standoff with the Supreme Court is becoming a crippling distraction, preventing the government from addressing critical problems such as the ailing economy, a worsening energy crisis and anti-militancy efforts.
The unrelenting legal troubles of the government stem from a judgment the Supreme Court delivered in late 2009. That ruling struck down a controversial amnesty that former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and her family had received in late 2007 and would allow a $60-million Swiss graft case against Bhutto’s widower, President Asif Ali Zardari to be reopened.
However, the Pakistan government has refused to ask Switzerland to reopen the case, arguing that the president enjoys immunity from prosecution in and outside Pakistan while in office.
The dispute has already led to the dismissal of one prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani.
His successor, Raja Pervez Ashraf, is likely to face the same fate when the Supreme Court meets again on August 27.
Senator Haji Mohammad Adeel, who represent’s the Awami National Party in the governing coalition, blames the judiciary’s “highhandedness” for the country's lingering economic troubles.
"When there is no stable government, there is no permanent prime minister in this country and there is always fear of removal of one Prime Minister, another and then third, so who will invest in this country," he said.
Analysts, too, attribute insufficient government focus on issues such as economy, education, healthcare and counter-terrorism to the relentless pressure from the Supreme Court.
"I think there is a situation of crisis and feeling of uncertainty, and in this kind of situation the government officials do not really take very bold steps because they don’t know who would be there ruling the country next week," said Hassan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst and former professor at Columbia University. "And the whole thing goes in favor of those who challenge the state authority, who are criminals, who are creating problems because they get relatively free hand."
There are others who say the legal battles should not have prevented the government from stabilizing the national economy, reforming the social sector and above all fixing the worsening energy crisis, which is having crippling effect on daily life.
“Absolutely, that is certainly a failure," said Zohra Yousuf, chairperson of independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "And if you see the budgets, the allocation for the social sector declined year by year. So certainly that has absolutely nothing to do with the judicial crisis and that has been a failing of this government and earlier ones years after years. But when the government’s priority is really to carry on and retain power then other sectors do get affected.”
The deadlock comes at a time when suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks have ebbed, indicating for some that the country is containing the violent Taliban-led insurgency deep inside its territory.
Despite the falling violence, authorities are confronting snags in prosecuting suspected militants because of an antiquated 1997 anti-terrorism law that parliament has failed to update to meet the new security challenges.
Zohra Yousuf criticizes inaction on part of both the Pakistani judiciary and the government.
"When the judiciary gives more priority to these issues rather than cases dealing with militancy then certainly it does encourage violence, it does promote militancy. I think it does send a signal to them that you can terrorize people you can kill people and for lack of evidence or other reasons you will be let off," said Yousuf.
Some observers say the government's inability to effectively prosecute terrorism cases is yet another stain on the credibility of a ruling party already under fire for inaction against widespread corruption.
Analysts say the failure to introduce a long awaited anti-corruption legislation in the parliament is encouraging some to turn to the country's fiercely independent Supreme Court and seek its intervention.