The South Asia Channel
Are times a-changin’ in Pakistan?
Two and a half years of fragile democracy, war against terror, devastating floods, economic slow-downs, millions of displaced people, and now calls from the self-exiled leader of Urdu-speaking community in Karachi, Altaf Hussain, for a French-style "revolution." Meanwhile, some of Pakistan’s radical television personalities have created an environment on their shows where politicians, retired military ...
Two and a half years of fragile democracy, war against terror, devastating floods, economic slow-downs, millions of displaced people, and now calls from the self-exiled leader of Urdu-speaking community in Karachi, Altaf Hussain, for a French-style "revolution."
Meanwhile, some of Pakistan’s radical television personalities have created an environment on their shows where politicians, retired military generals and pro-establishment politico-religious leaders confront each other-creating a sense of uncertainty and showing complete indifference among Pakistan’s elite to the genuine issues of the people. This sense has only been exacerbated by the failure of Pakistan’s government to bring about real reform. But will the chaotic internal situation in Pakistan provide another opportunity for the powerful Pakistani military establishment to intervene?
Indeed, it seems that now it may be, once again, the generals’ turn — but this time the army may not return on the forefront of Pakistani politics, preferring instead to play a role behind the scenes. It is not in the military’s interest to further tarnish its image internationally when the whole country is devastated by floods and violence, and badly needs global support to pursue (and fund) its relief, recovery and reconstruction agenda. The meeting this week between Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and the current government leaders has shown the increasing willingness of the army to aggressively push for changes in the government’s behavior and composition behind closed doors, rather than through tanks in the street.
Many Pakistanis believe the three ‘As’ – Allah, Army and America – are responsible for nearly anything good or bad happening in the country. But while Allah and America are not being discussed this time as much as they were in the past, it is the Army that currently gets much of the focus.
No one wants the generals to take over the government again. But the same time, it seems equally very difficult, if not impossible, to remove the elected government or force real change through constitutional means.
Under Pakistan’s constitution, opposition groups need 172 members in Pakistan’s parliament out of 342 seats to bring a ‘No Confidence’ motion and reverse the elected government, and with it the prime minister. Yet because the Pakistan People’s Party and its allies enjoy a dominant electoral position, this vote seems unlikely to occur. Impeaching the president would be even more difficult, as this vote requires a two-thirds majority (295 votes) to succeed.
A direct intervention from the military, though it can not be ruled out completely, does not seem to be a viable option; not only does the Pakistani army not have a positive image in the west (in particular due to its perceived failure to fully fight militant groups within its borders), but in Pakistan itself the history of past military leaders, such as Pervez Musharraf and Zia ul-Haq, does not leave many pining for the return of a military dictator.
The alternative, in this scenario, is for the army to force the elected president and prime minister to quit, form a national government and arrange another general election, as was done four times in the 1990s. Yet this scenario, too, would still be the army playing the major and crucial role, though behind the scenes; this is what now-retired Gen. Abdul Waheed Kakar did with the elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 1994. And the current army chief Gen. Kayani essentially forced the government to restore Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to his post during the protests from the so-called "lawyers’ movement."
However, even this alternative does not seem to be workable. President Asif Ali Zardari, has been recognized by his allies as a man of strong nerves and willpower, and once told local media that he would not leave the presidential house even if he was threatened with being taken out in an ambulance.
In the past week and a half three high level and emergency meetings of the government allies have been held following rumors about changes in the government. Former dictator Pervez Musharraf has announced the launching of the manifesto for his own party on October 1 while his previous colleagues of the Pakistan Muslim League, nicknamed the "King’s Party" for their support of the country’s generals, are forming new alliances to form the "All Pakistan Muslim League."
The main opposition party, run by former premier Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, has severed its ties with the government and started an anti-government drive with increased zeal and enthusiasm. As previously discussed, Altaf Hussain is openly calling for the generals to intervene to reform Pakistani politics. The leaders in poverty-stricken Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan are crying foul over the neglect and slow release of promised aid money from the central government.
Meanwhile, the media also looks increasingly hostile to the civilian government. More air time recently has gone to criticism of the government’s policies and blame of the government for the current mess in the country. And the media is saturated with pictures and videos of military officials distributing food items and building bridges and roads. Despite some criticism of the army’s very selective approach to the relief and rehabilitation activities in the wake of the disastrous flooding, people on the whole seem to consider the military their only hope for assistance and governance.
All of these indicators point towards some kind of "change" – maybe in the next few months, if not in the days or weeks ahead.
Only time will tell.
Daud Khattak is a Pashtun journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal.
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