When Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf presents himself before the country’s Supreme Court in a contempt of court case today, Pakistan’s increasingly tarnished democracy will also test its limits.The event marks the latest episode in a court case spanning several months. It is built around a dispute emerging from the refusal by the members of Pakistan’s ruling coalition, led by the PPP, to concede ground and formally request the authorities in Switzerland to reopen corruption-related investigations against President Asif Zardari.The matter has already taken its political toll with Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, having been thrown out of office by the Supreme Court. Though it is impossible to predict the exact outcome in this issue, it is safe to say that it will, indeed, be a tough call by the Supreme Court to just give a clean bill of health to Ashraf, having already punished his predecessor on the same charge.As this fight continues, which to many Pakistanis appears like a needless encounter in view of Zardari standing at the centre of widespread scepticism, Pakistan continues to suffer. At trial is not just the fate of yet another Prime Minister, but the rule of law and its interpretation in different ways.At one level is, indeed, the matter of President Zardari and his apparent act of defiance, well illustrated by the PPP’s commitment to block every move for reopening the investigations in Switzerland. Backed by the PPP, which Zardari effectively runs, some of the party leaders have defended their government’s action on the grounds of defending the President as an essential centrepiece of democracy. For such diehard figures, detaching Zardari conceptually from the idea of stabilising Pakistan’s young democracy just does not work. However, experience has shown that tying Zardari’s future to the future of Pakistan will ironically just undermine the country’s future.For many Pakistanis, who have coped with increasingly dismal living conditions, the government’s defence of Zardari once again provides evidence of the ruling structure only stepping ahead to defend the country’s top elite. In sharp contrast, many ordinary Pakistanis find themselves abused on a daily basis, without even the minimal help from the state or the government to protect them.At another level, the case in the Supreme Court has once again badly exposed the futility of any effort to enforce the rule of law in a country where lawlessness is so blatantly associated with the highest office of the land. Some of the best-run countries around the world do not necessarily rely on their ability to browbeat their citizens into submission.Instead, the element of a fair government that works in the interest of most of its citizens, and presided over by leaders not armed with brute force but by their moral authority intact, is the kind of a setting for stabilising a country. In sharp contrast and tragically for Pakistan, the tenure of the country’s present regime, which began in 2008, has only seen some of the most important indicators slide southwards. It is now clear that as long as Pakistan’s present-day ruling structure remains unaccountable for its deeds, the country’s future will increasingly darken.A reverse journey that sees an end to Pakistan’s slide, however, requires a congruence of at least two equally vital factors.First, the battle in the Supreme Court must lead to a logical conclusion, which is popularly seen as similar to the fate of former Prime Minister Gilani. On the contrary, any outcome that ensures the survival of Ashraf as PM, will immediately be a setback to the way ordinary Pakistanis see the future of their country eventually becoming a law-abiding one in some way.Second, beyond just pursuing the case against Zardari and other top-ranking government leaders, the Supreme Court must branch itself out to overseeing reforms in important areas of governance, including the economy. In the past, the Supreme Court had, indeed, taken up suo motu causes in areas where it deemed fit to intervene.Now, following what seems like the worst possible slide in Pakistan’s outlook, there is no reason why the court cannot increase space for itself by intervening in causes like reforming Pakistan’s chronically dysfunctional tax collection system, or curbing profligate spending by the government. While some of these prescriptions may sound overly harsh, the challenges faced by Pakistan are, indeed, daunting. Anything short of wide-ranging reforms to give a new direction to the country only runs the risk of pushing Pakistan backwards.

The writer is a political and economic analyst. This article has been reproduced from the Gulf News.