ISLAMABAD // The mistrust between the Pakistani government and the Supreme Court seems to run so deep that even what proves to be a baseless media report can lead to near disaster.
Their latest confrontation forced the prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to politely but firmly lecture the judiciary on constitutional democracy on nationwide television.Mr Gilani, known as a consensus-building politician, made a rare televised speech on Sunday after an extraordinary sequence of events that started on Thursday.
Then, three cable news channels reported that Mr Gilani had decided to withdraw a March 2009 executive order that reinstated Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the chief justice, and three other judges sacked in November 2007 by Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's then military ruler.
Spokesmen for the prime minister and the president, Asif Ali Zardari, immediately denied the story.
Despite the denials, the Supreme Court's 17 judges held a midnight meeting. Then on Friday, the chief justice rejected as insufficient the assurances by the attorney general, Maulvi Anwar, that the stories were false.
The high court directed the government to submit an affidavit, signed by the prime minister, stating that it would not withdraw the March 2009 order.
The court also issued an order constraining the government from taking any such step, ruling that it would consider it to be an act of treason punishable by death under the constitution.
The usually affable prime minister responded with a stage-managed address apparently designed to highlight how the judges' mistrust of the government had misled them into setting the stage for a potentially explosive confrontation with the government.
Sunday's broadcast on the state-run Pakistan Television channel began, as usual, with a recitation from the Quran. Pointedly, the selected verses spoke of the need to verify disturbing rumours, rather than accept them at face value.
For his speech, the prime minister was flanked by the senior ministers of Pakistan's four provincial governments and the two regions of the Kashmir region also claimed by India. Their presence, he said, was to demonstrate that the government was an expression of the people's democratic will in the February 2008 general election and that it had pursued a policy of reconciliation and coalition building over hostile politics.
"There is no possibility of a clash between state institutions while we are in office," he said, reminding the audience that his first step as prime minister had been to release the sacked judges from house arrest.
Mr Gilani also made clear he thought the judges had acted inappropriately by giving credence to unsubstantiated media reports over the government's denials.
In a parliamentary democracy, the prime minister is the leader of the elected parliament, he said. "If the prime minister utters a word, it should be treated as authoritative. Not to do so is an insult to the office," Mr Gilani said.
The judges' reaction was extreme, but it was taken against a backdrop of mounting tensions with the government, which has repeatedly upset Mr Chaudhry by going slow on the implementation of court orders.
Since being reinstated, Mr Chaudhry and his colleagues have repeatedly pushed the government into political corners by pursuing the decade-old corruption charges against Mr Zardari, and rulings that have struck down administrative decisions taken by the prime minister.
The judges - who are heroes to many Pakistanis because of their confrontation with Mr Musharraf - have increasingly been criticised by government ministers and coalition partners for exceeding its constitutional mandate and for targeting the government with its orders.
The government was particularly perturbed by the court's insistence that it instigated the revival of corruption charges against the president, seeing it as a violation of head of state immunity guaranteed by the constitution.
The charges were dropped under a political deal between Mr Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, Mr Zardari's wife, who was assassinated in 2007.
The president's arch-rival, Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the opposition, first filed the charges during his two terms as prime minister in the 1990s.
This is just the latest showdown. Last month, a clash between the government and the court was feared imminent, but the Supreme Court decided against ordering the army to enforce its order for the reinstatement of the charges.
The tensions have remained high. A key dispute is the government's assertion of its constitutional right to appoint its candidate as chairman of the National Accountability Bureau, which was set up by Mr Musharraf to investigate corruption.
The Supreme Court's reaction yesterday to Mr Gilani's speech was subdued.
The attorney general confirmed that the government would not submit the affidavit sought by the court. The court adjourned yesterday to allow an inquiry, formed by the government in compliance with the court's order on Friday, to investigate the reports that set off events.
The court's response might also have reflected a realisation that it had lost face because of its presumptuous reaction to the news reports.
"The superior judiciary must reflect on behaviour unbecoming for an institution, which is supposed to be cloaked in air of calm and dispassion," said Dawn, an English-language newspaper, in an editorial published yesterday.