The sentencing of Pakistan's former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf to death on charges of high treason is being acclaimed by many political analysts as a victory for civilian leaders in their long-running competition for power with the military.
"It sets a precedent that would be hard to ignore by any future adventurist," said Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a senator of the opposition Pakistan Peoples’ Party. "Even if a democratic government is dismissed, constitution abrogated or held in abeyance, return to democracy would immediately trigger calls for a trial for treason."
Pakistan has alternated throughout its existence between direct military rule and civilian governments that were subject to indirect military intervention. For the first time in the country’s history, the past two civilian governments completed their tenure and a third is in power.
This is also the first time that a military ruler has had to face the courts for suspending the constitution.
"Our civil-military relationship has been transforming over a period of time, slowly but definitely. This judgment will strengthen the civilians in this equation," said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the executive director of a non-profit think tank, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT).
Critics of the decision, like the federal minister for science and technology Chaudhry Fawad Hussain disagree.
Hussain pointed out that when parliament drafted Article Six of the constitution, which defines abrogating the constitution as treason, then-prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto claimed it would end all future adventures by generals. Yet, just five years later, martial law was imposed by Zia ul Haq and Bhutto was hanged.
"Such decisions cannot stop martial laws. Political governments must deliver to exercise supremacy. This decision has nothing to do with justice or constitution. It’s all personal vendetta," Hussain charged.
Khokhar and Hussein represent opposing views on a verdict that has divided Pakistani society. On one side is the military and a government that is considered close to the institution. On the other are opposition political parties and most human rights and civil society activists.
The verdict is also being viewed as a clash between the military and the judiciary, with possible long-term repercussions.
Musharraf's sentence "has been received with lot of pain and anguish by rank and file of Pakistan Armed Forces," said an official statement issued by the military’s public relations wing. "An ex-Army Chief, Chairman Joint Chief of Staff Committee and President of Pakistan, who has served the country for over 40 years, fought wars for the defense of the country can surely never be a traitor."
Retired air marshall Shahid Latif, who frequently appears in local media as a defense analyst, said the statement reflects the emotions of most of the uniformed men and women of the country. He said military personnel overwhelmingly feel that the sentence was meant to target a particular individual, and that proper legal procedures were not followed.
"The way this decision was taken is not right and that has been conveyed. The ball is now in the judiciary’s court," Latif said.
The impact of the clash is so far unclear. The Musharraf sentence is the second recent court judgment to directly challenge the military’s power. In another historic first, a court ruled last month that a three-year extension in the tenure of the serving army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa was illegal.
Some retired generals have already openly called for reforms to the judiciary. The extent to which such efforts might bear fruit is uncertain.
"What it is quite likely is that in the Supreme Court, this decision is either knocked out on technical grounds or the punishment is reduced. There is no question of implementation of this sentence. But to change the institution of the judiciary on a large scale I think will not be possible," said Mehboob, the PILDAT director.
The handling of the case will present the first major challenge for the next chief justice, who will soon replace the departing Asif Saeed Khan Khosa. Federal Minister Hussain said he hopes that individual wil bring the temperature down.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, the Musharraf sentence belies the image of Pakistan as a country where a powerful military reigns supreme over all other institutions. Instead, it reflects a more nuanced picture of the society whose key institutions are embroiled in a constant tug-of-war for power and influence.
Pakistani society has shown aversion to long-term military rule despite repeated coups. Analysts say that explains why, after most military takeovers, the head of the military installied himself as the head of some form of an elected government — even if that government was hand-picked.
"Our subcontinent’s ethos is democratic, hence the compulsion by all three dictators to draw legitimacy from sham/controlled elections. Pakistan is too diverse with strengthening democracy for someone to try and hang on for life," said Khokhar.
Even in a controlled democracy, Mehboob said, certain laws and rules apply, making it possible for independent-minded individuals to challenge those in power.
"If they could enforce an Egypt style dictatorship in Pakistan they would. Everyone wants absolute power," said Mehboob. "But such a move would be unacceptable even within the military itself."