The South Asia Channel

The time for coups has passed

Though the embattled Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led government breathed a sigh of relief after passing what may be called a "pro-democracy" resolution in parliament on the evening of January 16, hours later the country’s Supreme Court issued a contempt of court notice to the Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for his refusal to reinstate corruption ...

A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images

Though the embattled Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led government breathed a sigh of relief after passing what may be called a "pro-democracy" resolution in parliament on the evening of January 16, hours later the country’s Supreme Court issued a contempt of court notice to the Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for his refusal to reinstate corruption charges filed against President Asif Ali Zardari in a Swiss court. 

Many analysts see the political crisis currently wracking Pakistan as a do-or-die moment for its civilian government. However, the country’s all-powerful army is also feeling the heat of events this time, mainly due to the visible shift in public opinion against an explicit military intervention in the country’s politics.

Despite provocative, albeit well-placed, ‘state-within-the-state’ comments by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani about the army and its powerful intelligence arm the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), or Prime Minister Gilani’s decision to sack the well-respected Defense Secretary Naeem Khalid Lodhi, the military leadership so far opted to keep its hands off direct intervention, instead opting to voice its displeasure in the media.

Instead, analysts believe, the generals are using their mighty arm behind the scene, by pushing an interventionist Supreme Court not to let the civilian government off the hook.

The first case in question is the murky memo addressed to former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen allegedly asking for help stopping the Pakistani generals from carrying out a coup following the May 2 raid in Abbottabad. The second is the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) introduced by former dictator Pervez Musharraf, which grants amnesty to all political leaders, workers and bureaucrats accused of corruption, embezzlement and misuse of authority between January 1, 1986 and October 12, 1999.

Notwithstanding the media criticism of the civilian government over a host of issues including good governance, the country’s poor economic situation, law and order problems in places like Karachi, Pakistan’s seething energy crisis and apologetic approach towards militancy, the majority of leading analysts, newspapers and television commentators have come out clearly against extra-constitutional measures and an overt seizure of power.

In his commentary in the U.K.-based Guardian newspaper, journalist Muhammad Hanif says the Pakistan army is at least partially responsible for the troubles afflicting the nuclear-armed country and its 180 million people: "Pakistan’s army is as corrupt as the politicians from whom it wants to save the country. It’s just better at paperwork."

During the past three major coups in 1958 (Gen. Ayub Khan), 1977 (Gen. Zia) and 1999 (Gen. Musharraf), political leaders, civil society and even the majority of media outlets welcomed the change, hoping for a better future for the country. However, there are no such feelings visible this time, not even from the staunchest opponents of the government among politicians, civil society and the media.

Following the Army’s prediction of "grievous consequences" in response to Prime Minister Gilani’s interview with a Chinese newspaper, one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers, Express Tribune, put a key question before its readers about the army’s role in the country’s politics: "The first question that comes to mind as one reads this is, did the military’s actions in 1958, 1977 and 1999 also reflect an "allegiance to State and the Constitution"? Is not a former army chief on record as having said that the Constitution was a mere piece of paper?"

Discussing the same subject, another leading newspaper, Dawn writes: "One thing in particular bears stating: if Pakistan had been a more developed democracy, the authors of the ISPR [Inter-Services Public Relations] statement this week would have been summarily sacked." 

Additionally, many journalists in Pakistan seem to be more aware of their critical role in saving democratic institutions this time. In her article in Express Tribune, analyst Nasim Zehra writes: "Had there been an independent electronic media in October 1999 there would have been no coup."

What is different now, though, more than three years after Pakistan’s return to democracy, is the role played by the Supreme Court as a perceived advocate of the armed forces. Discussing the recent decision of the Supreme Court questioning the ‘honesty’ of Prime Minister Gilani on the basis of Quranic injunctions against being deceitful, a Daily Times columnist Dr. Muhammad Taqi writes: "In a country reeling under the effects of radicalization, the last thing needed is the industrial-strength moral certitude and virtual proselytizing from the bench." In his article entitled "Judicial Hubris," Dr. Taqi states that "it is most unfortunate that the honorable judges have repeatedly resorted to religious rhetoric to establish the case against the NRO beneficiaries."

Another columnist, Kamran Shafi, writing in Express Tribune on the same subject, asks the Supreme Court as why the judicial commissions are silent over the role of intelligence agencies in their failure to track down bin Ladin in garrison town of Abbottabad or the culprits behind the tragic murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad. Shafi continues: "What is of utmost import today; what is a matter of life or death for many Pakistanis; what will determine whether we are a civilized people or a horde of wild brutes is the shamefully non-conclusive report on the brutal and savage beating to death of journalist Saleem Shahzad."

Like several other analysts, Ilyas Khan of the BBC believes that the army is supporting the Supreme Court behind the scene to push the government to the corner. "Instead, the military are thought to prefer to let the Supreme Court use "constitutional" methods to go after the government."

Meanwhile, the Urdu-language newspapers, mostly known for their anti-American and anti-government comments, have generally continued to criticize the government’s inefficiency, but have still asked for an end to the crisis in accordance with the tenets laid out in the Constitution of Pakistan.

In its editorial on January 15, just a day after the government introduced a pro-democracy resolution in the parliament the Urdu-language Daily Express praised Pakistan’s political parties for struggling to resolve the crisis through democratic means.

Another Urdu-language newspaper, the Daily Mashriq, criticizes the government for its ‘inefficiency’ and ‘non-implementation’ of the court decisions regarding the NRO, but also opposes the tussle among the state institutions (i.e. the parliament, army and judiciary), arguing that this infighting will have negative effects on the future of democracy.

Commentator and analyst Ayaz Amir, in his article entitle "double standards and hypocrisy" in the Urdu daily Jang, says no one can deny the fact that the present government is inefficient. But, he says, it is time for the opposition to let it complete the remaining one year on its term for the sake of democracy.

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The rapid pace of movement on the political front makes predictions impossible, though the most likely scenario will be the government’s agreement with the opposition parties, both inside and outside the parliament, to an early election following the voting for Senate, due to take place in March of this year.

While the military is in no position to stage a direct coup for a number of reasons, including opposition from both pro- and anti-government parties alike, it is the Supreme Court of Pakistan that poses the most direct threat to the existing government serving out its current term.

The opposition parties have their own axes to grind. The main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is apparently resisting an overt army action, but will not weep if the government is sacked by the Supreme Court with behind-the-scenes approval from the army.

The reason for allowing this to happen is clear: To stop the PPP from getting a majority in the Senate election due in March and do not allow more time to cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, whose previously downtrodden Tehrik-e-Insaaf is unexpectedly making headway in many cities. Khan’s critics believe he enjoys secret support from "the establishment," which means the army and its intelligence agencies. 

The people of Pakistan, suffering under price hikes for energy and gasoline, high unemployment, and numerous other problems, would shed no tears if the government were sent packing under pressure from the Supreme Court. However, a direct army intervention is likely to be resisted, mainly because of the army’s shattered image following the Musharraf era.

Some sources in the pro-PPP camp say the government would rather to be removed through direct army intervention than by the Supreme Court, just to become a ‘Siasee Shaheed‘ (political martyr) and garner public sympathy before the next general elections. Hence, political circles close to the PPP leadership may not rule out steps provoking the army — including seeking the resignation or sacking of the Army and ISI chiefs — once the party sees clear chances of removal from government through the Supreme Court. One last option for the government, in a bid to avoid the Supreme Court action, is the resignation of Prime Minister Gilani, which could postpone, if not fully avert, the existing crisis — until the crucial Senate election at least. Prime Minister Gilani is due to appear before the Supreme Court on Thursday, January 19 with regard to the NRO case.

With nothing clear about the future, the only solid element seen on Pakistan’s political horizon is the strong resolve shown by the people, media, civil society and the political parties to say "no" to a possible military intervention and ‘yes’ to democracy and to the supremacy of the Constitution. What that will mean in reality, though, is anyone’s guess.

Daud Khattak is a journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal.

Daud Khattak is a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Twitter: @daudkhattak1

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