Pakistan’s supreme court today banned the most popular opposition candidate from running for office, raising further concerns about the long-term viability of the country’s ostensibly democratic government as a partner.

  Zarar Khan for the AP:

Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday barred opposition leader Nawaz Sharif from elected office, raising the prospect of fresh political instability in the country as its shaky government struggles against rising Islamist militancy. The court also upheld a challenge against the election of Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, to a seat in the Punjab Assembly, meaning he cannot continue as head of the provincial government in the country’s most populous and wealthy region.

The court was hearing appeals against a ruling barring Sharif from contesting elections because of a prior criminal conviction. The judges were also considering allegations of irregularities in Shahbaz’s election to the provincial parliament.

The long-awaited decisions will deepen a growing rift between Sharif, one of the country’s most popular politicians who heads its largest opposition grouping, and the pro-Western coalition government under President Asif Ali Zardari.  Sharif, who has twice been Pakistan’s prime minister, has already announced his support for what is expected to be a large rally next month by lawyers whose protests over the past two years helped drive former President Pervez Musharraf from power. His supporters accused Zardari of influencing the Supreme Court to neutralize a powerful rival.

In a sign of Sharif’s influence and power, visiting U.S. officials frequently travel to his house in the Punjab to meet him, the most recent being Richard Holbrooke, the American envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Later this morning, the Atlantic Council will unveil its new Pakistan Report, Needed: A Comprehensive U.S. Policy Towards Pakistan.  Its first words are, “Pakistan faces dire economic and security threats that threaten both the existence of  Pakistan as a democratic and stable state and the region as a whole.” 

Not all of the threats are internal.  Its undemocratic governmental practices, too, are part of the problem.  The report acknowledges the role that the constant threat of military takeover posed for Pakistan’s governance but notes that, “Under elected leaderships democracy appeared to become no stronger while the rulers’ abuses of  power increased in scale (13).”

Two of the report’s key findings reinforce this message:

  • The U.S. must reinforce Pakistan’s efforts to strengthen democracy, engaging with political  parties across the spectrum and supporting programs that strengthen political participationand civil society. The U.S. should encourage the Pakistan government to more actively work to build a strong and wide base of  support its current economic, political, and military strategy and an informed civil-military dialogue.
  • The U.S. should expand its efforts to assist Pakistan in building institutions of democracy by expanding training opportunities for political party workers on organizing parties and conducting elections.  The U.S. should build on the work done by NDI and IRI and draw the EU and the European Parliament and other institutions into this effort (24).

A key mistake highlighted in the report that the United States has made time and time again is simply backing the leader du jour and ignoring the opposition party and the larger issues of Pakistani civil society.   If we’re serious about building a sustainable, long term partnership — and we can’t afford not to be — then we should not turn a blind eye to the crass politicization of the courts and such undemocratic tactics as banning legitimate politicians from contending for office.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.