Never before has the Supreme Court of Pakistan been perceived as blatantly prejudiced in favor of a political party as it is today, seemingly divided between a section—led by Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial—supporting the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and another defying him. However, while the scale of the partisanship is new, this is hardly the first time a government has faced off against the judiciary. In 1997, a mob led by lawmakers of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) attacked the Supreme Court building during contempt proceedings against then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif; in 2012, then-premier Yousaf Raza Gilani was disqualified for refusing to reopen corruption cases against then-president Asif Ali Zardari. Even the current favor for Imran Khan recalls the rulings of former CJP Saqib Nisar, who by all accounts continues to support the PTI chief from the sidelines.
The current conflict between Supreme Court judges doubtlessly influences the adjudication process, with commentary increasingly focused on the make-up of benches hearing political cases. Of particular note is the sidelining of Justice Qazi Faez Isa, who is set to replace CJP Bandial as the top judge upon the latter’s retirement on Sept. 16, 2023, and is not in the good books of Khan. Perhaps recognizing the impact of the perceived internal rift, both Bandial and Isa undertook a “photo op” last week of working together to plant a tree at the SC. Justice Isa also issued a statement denying internal rifts, stressing he fully respected the CJP. Alas, this has done little to reverse the public’s opinion, with members of the ruling alliance maintaining the courts are granting “undue favor” to Khan, especially when contrasted with rulings issued against his political rivals.
As the government nears the end of its constitutional term and the country gears up for elections, the question of an “impartial” judiciary and polling exercise will become ever more critical. If it has any hope of overcoming prevailing crises, Pakistan must attain “normalcy.” Achieving this will require all pillars of the state—military, judiciary, parliament—to work together for rule of law and without any perceived bias. Whether or not this is achievable will determine the fate of the millions of Pakistanis struggling under rampant inflation and resurgent terrorism.