Days after the supreme court of Pakistan dismissed the prime minister on charges of contempt of court, the president of the country seems to be inching towards a similar fate. Acting on the basis of a petition that called for contempt of court proceedings to be initiated against Asif Ali Zardari for continuing to hold the office of both the president and the co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party, the Lahore high court has asked the attorney-general to convey to Mr Zardari that it “expected” the president to abide by its last year’s directive. The 2011 order had asked him to “disassociate” himself from the political office and stop using the official premises to conduct party affairs. The constitution of Pakistan does not expressly forbid the president from holding political office or engaging in political activities so long as he claims no remuneration from them. So Mr Zardari cannot be disqualified from his office for holding a political post. But the operative word here is ‘expectation’. The head of State is expected to play a non-partisan role and maintain the dignity of his high office by refraining from indulging in politics. That is the expectation previous judgments interpreting the role of the president have pointed to, and that is also what the Lahore high court pointed to in its order. It made one exception though. It made it plain that presidential immunity granted by the constitution could not be used to defend actions that the president undertook in a capacity different from his official position. In other words, the president is as vulnerable as the prime minister to judicial intervention.
It is important for Pakistan to directly address the question of presidential immunity. The question is holding up its political future as the supreme court goes on insisting on the re-opening of the graft cases against Mr Zardari while skirting the issue of presidential immunity that has been the central plank of the PPP’s defence of its party chief. It is equally important for the judiciary to realize that although it is necessary to uphold constitutional propriety, it cannot allow its assertiveness in the matter to be misused to further narrow political goals. But that is what seems to be happening in Pakistan, where larger political players are trying to eke out the maximum advantage from an institutional face-off that is progressively undermining the strength of Pakistan’s democracy.