Coup Season

Is Pakistan's meddlesome military up to its old tricks?


With the future of Pakistan’s prime minister, president, army chief, and Supreme Court chief justice up in the air this year, there was little doubt that 2013 would be rife with intrigue in Islamabad. The country, after all, has witnessed three military coups in its 65-year history. And Pakistan has yet to see a transition of power between two successive democratically elected governments.

Today, many Pakistani observers, including human rights activist Asma Jahangir, suspect a surreptitious putsch is afoot, aided by the judiciary and a mysterious cleric-politician, Tahir-ul-Qadri, who suddenly returned to Pakistan last month from Canada. The Sufi cleric has now led three large anti-government rallies, buttressed by expensive television advertising and a professional social media campaign.

The goal, these observers claim, is the implementation of what’s known in Pakistan as the Bangladesh model — a reference to that country’s army and Supreme Court-backed, technocrat  government, which governed from 2007 to 2009 and was tasked with correcting the mess caused by the two dominant political parties. In Pakistan’s case, those two parties would be President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Qadri has only heightened this suspicion by calling for the inclusion of both the army and the judiciary in selecting a caretaker government to oversee the elections expected this spring. There has been no visible public demand for including these actors in the process. And it has no justification in the Pakistani constitution, which only requires general elections to take place under the auspices of a neutral caretaker government chosen by the government and opposition, or by the federal election commission.

On Jan. 15, Qadri’s plan appeared to be taking shape when Pakistani television channels broke from live coverage of his rally to report the breaking news of the Supreme Court’s apparent order for Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf’s arrest. It seemed perfectly choreographed: Qadri’s followers erupted in celebration, and the cleric asked them to perform the namaz-e shukrana, or prayer of gratitude. For a moment, Qadri appeared to be another Khomeini — returning from the West with an effortless victory over the ancien régime.

Alas, for Qadri — who seems to be inspired by the late Iranian leader’s "cleansing" of the Pahlavi system — it was too good to be true. The Supreme Court’s order turned out to be not nearly so bold: It was simply a notification that gives the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), a federal anti-corruption body, the ability to arrest the prime minister, who is accused of receiving kickbacks from companies involved in rental power projects, if necessary, in relation to the ongoing investigation. While the Supreme Court could push the NAB chief in that direction, the bureau could also employ delaying tactics. The government, in any case, has the ability to survive with or without the current prime minister till its tenure ends in mid-March. 

The implementation of the "Bangladesh model" also faces another hurdle: It is unlikely that the Supreme Court would ally with the army or any other non-democratic forces. Though it has legitimized military interventions in the past, the court has demonstrated its vigilance since 2007 in guarding its autonomy, and shown hostility to both civilian and military authoritarianism. This, after all, is a court led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was deposed twice in 2007 for challenging military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

That’s not to say there isn’t good reason for the antsiness pervading Islamabad today. Pakistan is scheduled to have an unprecedented series of consecutive leadership transitions this year: General elections are supposed to take place in April or May, as the current government’s tenure is ending. In September, Zardari’s term concludes. In November, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is scheduled for retirement. And in December, the era of Chaudhry, the most powerful Supreme Court chief justice in Pakistan’s history, will finish upon his retirement. 

Given the uncertainty that lies ahead, the military might be behind Qadri. The military might also be using Qadri to prevent a second term for the PPP or a return to power for Sharif, a center-right politician who clashed with three army chiefs during the 1990s. The military might even have given up on Pakistan’s five-year democratic experiment as the country’s economic health and security erode. Qadri, in some ways, is the perfect front man for the military: He rails against the political class, calls for strong anti-corruption measures and economic reform, and has presented himself as a "moderate Muslim" to the West, issuing a well-publicized fatwa against terrorism.

But there is no smoking gun linking Qadri to the military, which has disavowed any connection to him. The credibility of the military’s distancing itself from Qadri should not be reflexively dismissed. Qadri could have simply used his massive devotional following and worldwide educational network to fill a void and audition as the savior of the military and Pakistan’s anti-politics middle class.

If Qadri is indeed on a military-backed mission to force the postponement of the elections and pave the way for a caretaker government, he is likely to fail. Pakistani politicians, though known for their petty squabbling, will align against any effort to delay elections and suspend civilian rule. It’s true that in the past, many civilian political parties have supported military rulers — but today, there is a broad consensus in favor of democracy. Other power brokers, including much of the private media and civil society groups that played a key role in Musharraf’s downfall, will also resist efforts to derail the country’s democratic experiment. Pakistan’s military, burdened with multiple counterinsurgencies, cannot afford such a backlash.

The military does, however, have a constitutional way to indirectly reduce the risks of civilian encroachments on its prerogatives. Both Qadri and Imran Khan, the ex-cricket star now head of the third way Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party, call for empowering the Election Commission of Pakistan and strengthening its moral authority to disqualify candidates on constitutional grounds, including financial impropriety. If candidates from the PPP and PML-N are disproportionally affected, then Khan’s PTI could perform better in the upcoming polls, and potentially balance out the PML-N in a hung parliament. In recent years, the PML-N has been Pakistan’s strongest advocate for civilian control over the military. If it attains a parliamentary majority on its own, it will have the necessary political space to assert its authority over the military. But if it is dependent on coalition partners to form a government — and in particular, partners that are somewhat friendly with the military — then Sharif’s political capital over the military would reduced.

During the course of his tenure, Kayani has repeatedly expressed his support for the democratic process — though it would be wrong to say that he has been apolitical. Yes, it is possible that his support for civilian rule has dwindled: The word democracy was conspicuously absent from his Independence Day speech last August, though it has commonly appeared in his other major public addresses, including his Martyr’s Day speech in May. But it would be out of character for Kayani, a deeply cautious man, to make such an indelicate push against democracy.

There might be elements in the military whose inhibitions about a coup have eased. But Pakistan is not yet hurtling over a cliff: The resolve of Pakistan’s pro-democracy coalition — its major political parties, judges, civil society groups, and television channels — remains strong.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, LLC, a political risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia. Twitter: @arifcrafiq

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