THE chief justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, peers through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles at the ingredients list on a packet of powdered milk, shakes his head in sadness and then shoos 20 lawyers for the industry away from the bench. He has a busy schedule. Consumed in recent months by a mission to deliver “clean air, clean water and pure milk” to Pakistan, the 64-year-old is spending a Saturday hearing 16 cases that he has taken up suo motu, or on his own initiative. Crowds throng the courthouse in Lahore, the capital of the state of Punjab, drawn by the spectacle of a judge dispensing verdicts like a king. The powder, he rules, must be relabelled post-haste. After milk, he turns to the owners of a factory allegedly dumping effluent into a river. An elderly villager in a white turban breaks forward, begging the justice to punish them. “I cannot let my children be poisoned,” thunders Mr Nisar (pictured).

Mr Nisar is not Pakistan’s first celebrity judge. In 2008 Iftikhar Chaudhry helped to oust General Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator, overturning the Supreme Court’s previously pliant reputation, which it had gained by rubber-stamping a series of coups. The successful exercise of his authority went to Mr Chaudhry’s head, however. He began to interfere in all manner of areas typically seen as beyond the court’s remit, such as fixing the price of sugar. All four of his successors (until Mr Nisar) were more circumspect, stung in particular by the potential $12.5bn bill left by Mr Chaudhry’s energetic voiding of government contracts with foreign firms.

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Most lawyers blanch at the judiciary’s return to the headlines. Mr Nisar has launched around 30 suo motu cases since the beginning of the year. In one, he was so moved by the plight of a medical student unable to pay his $3,000 school fees, he said the Supreme Court would pay instead. He has also delved into such pressing matters as the quality of chicken feed (he launched a commission on standards), even as the judiciary groans under a backlog of 3m pending cases.

The Supreme Court is obliged to act because of the indolence of the executive, say the judge’s supporters. His assault on dodgy private medical colleges could limit the growing number of doctors unsure of where to find the appendix. Bank employees have the chief justice to thank for raising their paltry pension, from $13 to $70 a month. In response to the charge that he exceeds his brief, Mr Nisar points to the dire state of many public services. “Call me any time I am crossing a line,” he told a journalist, “but why should not the ordinary people of Rawalpindi have clean water?”

Filling or creating a vacuum?

Unfortunately, it is not clear that the chief justice can get the water purified single-handed. Worse, in the run-up to a general election due to be held this summer, Mr Nisar’s actions distort national politics. His impromptu visits to hospitals prompt coverage harmful to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the ruling party. Most of his complaints focus on Punjab, the party’s stronghold. He has threatened to “shut down” the Orange Line, the first phase of Lahore’s new metro system, if the government does not improve health and education. Other decisions clash with the PML-N’s policies. Whereas the government promises a tax amnesty for citizens who bring money home from abroad, the chief justice has formed a commission to investigate how to seize the assets. “He’s filling the role of the opposition,” sighs Junaid Jahangir, a barrister. Indeed, the actual opposition, in the form of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), a party led by Imran Khan, a former cricketer, often plays second fiddle to the courts, applauding the chief justice’s rulings.

Yet even opposition politicians ought to be wary of the Supreme Court’s hubris. The court is cramping the space for democracy, argues Babar Sattar, a lawyer and columnist. In disqualifying Nawaz Sharif, the former leader of the PML-N, as prime minister for failing to live up to the injunction in Article 62 of the constitution that politicians be “honest” and “righteous”, it set a potentially sweeping precedent. On March 2nd Mr Nisar doubled down. He annulled a law that allowed MPs removed from office in this way to run parties (a measure the PML-N had passed on Mr Sharif’s behalf), on the feeblest of grounds. “Faithful adherence to Article 62,” Mr Nisar writes, “provides a recipe for cleansing the fountainheads of the State from persons who suffer from character flaws.”

Such talk is music to the army’s ears. It was under its aegis that Article 62 was slipped into the constitution in 1973, to control civilian politicians. Leaders of the PML-N often imply that the judiciary is a tool of the army. At any rate, the two institutions offer one another undisguised support. Unlike Mr Chaudhry, Mr Nisar has avoided topics the army would rather not discuss, such as unexplained disappearances of those who annoy the top brass. This month Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of army staff, warned that the armed forces would stand behind the judiciary in any dispute with parliament.

Although the PML-N is now casting itself as the persecuted champion of democracy, the party did little to burnish it before Mr Sharif’s ousting. In four years as prime minister, Mr Sharif appeared in the National Assembly just six times. Politicians have ceded more and more ground to the courts, points out Asad Rahim Khan, a lawyer. Parties now regularly file legal petitions aimed at disqualifying their rivals, instead of leaving voters to adjudicate their disputes. The army also has no shortage of supporters in politics, despite its blatant refusal to submit to civilian control.

This two-pronged attack on democracy is only likely to get worse. A corruption trial may soon put Mr Sharif behind bars, hamstringing the chief foe of both institutions. After this summer’s election the more pliable Pakistan Peoples Party and the PTI might be able to form a coalition to remove the PML-N from office. Whoever wins, one thing appears certain: they will have a boot on their neck and a gavel poised to strike them over the head.

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