Pakistan's governance gap filled by overzealous courts

In the absence of effective governance, the people are often left to fend for themselves - or must permit more insidious forces to fend for them.

In one small village in Pakistan's tribal areas, parents became alarmed when their children came home from the only school available, a madrasa, and told them that they were not "real Muslims". The predominant Pashtun society of the tribal areas takes a dim view of a maulvi (religious scholar) interfering with non-religious matters. The community decided to set up their own school to provide their children a proper education. But after failing to obtain funding from the government or charities, they had little choice: they had to send their children back to the madrasa.

I heard many variations of this story while on a recent trip to Pakistan. In the absence of effective governance, the people are often left to fend for themselves - or must permit more insidious forces to fend for them. It is not that the inhabitants of the tribal areas are diehard Taliban supporters - most are not. They have the same aspirations of any parent, that their children have a better life than they, but the avenues for advancement are limited at best.

American diplomats and pundits have been warning that the Pakistan is dangerously close to becoming a failed stated. It is not, not yet. Certainly, Pakistan's struggles with security, with corruption, with high inflation, unemployment and with social unrest, paint an image of a nation in turmoil, and it is. But there is a more worrying issue facing Pakistan. If allowed to continue, it could indeed threaten the integrity of the state. If you ask any Pakistani what their federal government does for them, the answer is likely to be: nothing.

Governance is absent or barely present in much of the country; politicians are seen as almost universally corrupt, rapacious, and/or populist demagogues; electricity brownouts are common, leading both to frustration and a hamstrung manufacturing sector; gas for cooking and heating is rationed in most cities and villages; tax collection is almost as spotty as the services the government provides. All of these problems have been exacerbated by the problem of militancy.

There is an undeniable anger at the state of affairs among the people, but it is shrouded in despair at the lack of apparent solutions. Throughout the country's history, Pakistan has struggled with corruption and incompetence in civilian administration. The solution always lies with the army, seen by most Pakistanis as competent by comparison and above the petty politicking and avaricious nature of their civilian governments. At least, this was true until Pervez Musharraf took over.

For many Pakistanis, Mr Musharraf's time in office exploded a myth that the military was more competent at administration than civilians and that it was not corrupt. Today, the central government is more than simply ineffective in Pakistan, it is disillusioning. There is no obvious solution to any of these problems. Any of these issues, taken separately, would not amount to an existential threat. It is their combination that may prove so deadly. Worryingly, Pakistan seems to lack either the capacity or will to treat its disease. The executive branch is seen as corrupt and is the subject of mockery by the people. The legislative branch is atrophying. No MP or political party wants to be the one to take up the task of solving any of the myriad problems knowing that they will require difficult and, at times, unpopular policies. There are no votes to be had in doing so.

The only functioning branch of the government appears to be the judiciary led by the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and this carries its own peril. It is no secret that the president Asif Ali Zardari opposed the reinstitution of Mr Chaudhry, who was sacked during the latter days of the Musharraf presidency. A series of standoffs between the judiciary and the executive have shown exactly what Mr Zardari feared.

Mr Chaudhry declared the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) unconstitutional late last year, which withdrew corruption charges and convictions against hundreds of Pakistanis, but most notably Mr Zardari. He spent time in prison for corruption and could, in theory, be ineligible to hold office without the protections offered by the NRO. Thus far, the chief justice has declined to rule on the issue of Mr Zardari's eligibility to hold public office. The threat of a ruling hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the executive, however, as was no doubt intended.

The president is not the only one under the watchful eye of the chief justice. He has the power to take what is called suo moto (of his own accord) notice of an issue, meaning that he takes on a case without it first being offered by a petitioner. Mr Chaudhry has exercised this special jurisdiction to tackle any number of human rights issues, including old cases of people suspected of disappearing for political reasons. The result has been greater attention by all branches of government and the bureaucracy to their duties.

The consequences have been sometimes bizarre. When bomb blasts went off during the Shiite celebration of Muharram in Karachi this month, the leadership of the dominant party in the city the Muttahida Qaumi Movement asked the chief justice to take suo moto notice of the bombing and the security lapses. It is illustrative of Pakistan's problems that a party that is part of the ruling coalition of the Sindh province where Karachi is located should ask the judiciary to handle issues that are its responsibility.

Despite the seemingly well-intentioned nature of Mr Chaudhry's tenure, there are worrying tendencies toward advocacy that, in the absence of a functioning legislative and executive branch, are creating a dependency on him to perform duties nominally outside of his job description. Pakistan needs institutional reform to tackle its many issues, and one man is not an institution. Eventually, Pakistan's leadership will have to face the fact that its problems are growing worse the longer they are ignored. Unfortunately, it seems that they are all waiting for someone else to do it first. Meanwhile Pakistanis are left to fend for themselves, as best they can.