Author(s): Moeen Cheema
2017 was the year of the Panama case. That one case overshadowed all the business in the Apex Court and has shaped public perception of the Court’s role. Just as in the previous electoral cycle, the Supreme Court has disqualified and dismissed a prime minister from office in the year leading up to the messy business of elections. Just as during the tenure of former Chief Justice Chaudhry, the Court has ended up in an overt tussle with a government that is determined to present itself as a victim of a “judicial coup.” The disqualification of the head of the largest political party in Pakistan in the run-up to an election has also raised anxieties about of a political court acting in collusion with the country’s powerful military intent on destabilizing the transitional democratic system.
The Panama case marks the Court’s return to the center of the political stage after a brief hiatus, a position it seems likely to occupy in the foreseeable future. The Supreme Court’s political role is not a recent development. Over the last three decades, the Supreme Court has evolved from a peripheral state institution to a key player mediating the balance of powers in a deeply divided and politically fragmented polity. However, the Court’s exercise of its judicial review jurisdiction appears to be “promiscuous” rather than principled. Despite the larger claims, the superior courts appear to have become “institutions of governance” and judicial review the mode of a “delicate and political process of balancing competing values and political aspirations” . . . providing “a workable modus vivendi” which in turn enables the courts to claim a seat at the table of high politics.