What’s Brewing in Pakistan

This was written for The Open Magazine of India, and appeared on Saturday January 21, 2012

EYES RIGHT! Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani preside over a military exercise - Photo: Open Magazine

ISLAMABAD ~ Ever since democracy was restored in Pakistan after the general elections of 2008, not a day has passed without a crisis—sometimes engineered, sometimes resulting from the government’s weaknesses and incompetence.

The country’s two major political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), joined hands to contest the elections, which were boycotted by most right-wing religious parties including Imran Khan’s ‘movement for justice’—the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). One common thread that ran through the winning PPP–PML-N coalition was its strong opposition to the ‘establishment’ (an oft-used euphemism for the military, which remains the largest and most powerful political actor in Pakistan).

The PML-N, foreseeing an economic crisis as well as one of governance, decided to leave the coalition and take on the role of a ‘meaningful’ opposition. But it would be naïve to believe that Pakistan’s key political events were only those being played out in parliament and among political parties. Newly revived, the country’s civil society—of lawyers largely—was still riding the exuberance of two successful campaigns for the restoration of the judiciary, under threat from Musharraf in July 2007 and later from the newly elected government in early 2009. The same civil movement had also given rise to a potent and dynamic media.

Massive corruption charges (still unproven in any court of law) had been used to put the PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari in jail for nearly a decade. During this period, he had to confront a highly antagonistic bureaucracy and judiciary. One story goes that during this time, one of the seniormost judges on the bench once flung a file at Zardari’s face and challenged him to get bail if he could. He could not get bail, but did get spondylitis as well as injuries on the tongue and neck that were claimed to have been inflicted by torture in prison. The result: while Zardari has a history of forgetting personal persecution, the judges do not, so the enmity lives on.

Benazir Bhutto, who was in self-imposed exile, had already earned Musharraf’s rage for her outspoken criticism of his plans. While the PPP’s past political positions since the early 1970s had been largely based on popular sentiment on Kashmir (against India), Benazir had been able to reverse much of the thrust of her father’s foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis India, even while sometimes maintaining a belligerent public posture.

Negotiating with the PPP, Musharraf made sure it legitimised his election as president in 2007, and in lieu issued a notorious waiver on all ‘politically motivated cases’ through the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). General Kayani, then chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had negotiated the NRO on Musharraf’s behalf. It was challenged in court as soon as the judiciary was restored in 2009. The PPP’s hesitation in supporting the restoration was not something the judges were in a mood to forgive.

This is the backdrop against which Pakistan’s present stage of politics has been set. A belligerent media, a politicised judiciary, an eager-to-rule army, an opportunist clergy, a coterie of selfish pro-establishment politicians—all set against the ruling coalition, especially the PPP, and more so, President Asif Ali Zardari. The problem for the ‘establishment’, though, is that moving its Brigade 111 from Rawalpindi to a couple of buildings on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue is not as easy and kosher as it might have been in the 1950s or even 1970s. After the army did carry out a coup in 1999, it had to endure severe public disapproval, which gradually started showing on the force’s own morale. At one point, Pakistan’s army officers were ordered not to go to public places in uniform.

Covert martial law or controlled democracy was the best of all available options. But even that did not prove to be easy because of elements within the government that managed to thwart the army’s control of policy. Even foreign aid legislation was manipulated by civilians and linked to civilian supremacy and democratic rule in the country, under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman (KLB) legislation of the US Congress. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, was one of those ‘rogue elements’ committed to civilian rule and had reportedly played an important role in the passage of the KLB bill. He had to be tackled. The recent memo scandal—which concerns an unsigned note allegedly sent via Haqqani from Pakistan’s political leadership to US Admiral Mike Mullen asking for American help in curbing the army’s power—did that quite well. Haqqani was made to resign.

Amid all this, Imran Khan emerged as a potential ‘third force’ in Pakistani politics. With the overwhelming support of the youth, Khan poses a threat to the two traditional loci of political power—the PML-N and PPP. Both of them, though often at odds, are still working together. The PML-N has been worried about the upcoming Senate of Pakistan elections (due in March 2012), in which the PPP was expected to gain a majority. Such a majority in the Senate could hamper legislative business in the National Assembly. It has, thus, started its ‘Go-Zardari-go’ campaign from Punjab; this way, the PPP-led government could be made to pack up before the upcoming Senate elections.

But after a massive October rally held by Imran Khan, the PML-N has clearly said it would not mind a PPP majority in the Senate. Nonetheless, maintaining a semblance of antagonism towards the PPP would allow the PML-N to project itself as an alternative to the ‘incompetent and corrupt’ ruling party. The PTI, in turn, needs time to organise itself—both to select suitable electoral candidates and register its hitherto unregistered voters. The traditional parties would rather press for as early an election as possible to prevent this.

While Pakistan’s political parties are at odds, the ‘establishment’ is all set to teach a lesson to all those who it thinks have been responsible for reducing the army’s clout on the policy front, especially on the country’s counter-terrorism strategy and Afghan policy.

While the memo scandal was helped along by the hyper-nationalism of the urban middle-class, the anger against Musharraf’s controversial NRO has been brought to boil once again. Pakistan’s apex court had earlier ruled that all corruption cases be re-opened, including one in a Swiss court that was closed after Musharraf wrote a letter to the Swiss Government. The [apex] court had ordered the government to write to the Swiss Government to re-open those cases. This order, the government in turn maintains, is against the constitution that grants immunity to the president.

In recent developments, the superior court has charged the prime minister with contempt-of-court for not writing that letter [to the Swiss], and has ordered him to appear in court. His counsel’s licence has also been suspended for contempt-of-court. As of now, an old party comrade, Aitzaz Ahsan, has been appointed the PM’s counsel on this case. Ahsan had earlier been sidelined within the PPP for his apparent closeness to the chief justice, when he was a prominent leader of the lawyers’ movement.

The army is also in no mood to forgive the ‘independence’ of the civilian government, especially of the prime minister who has lambasted the army twice in a couple of weeks. A strongly worded statement from the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) followed the prime minister’s media jibe against the army chief and ISI head, who had submitted affidavits to the court that contradicted the government’s position on the memo issue. The prime minister had called it extra-constitutional and illegal; the army, in turn, threatened the PM with ‘grave consequences’.

While general elections are due in the later part of 2013, they may be held as early as October this year. The prime minister, who is appearing before the court on 19 January, is expected to cite the constitutional immunity enjoyed by the president. Scenarios for the endgame of the government will emerge only after the court’s decision. If the prime minister is convicted or sentenced for contempt, he will be disqualified from holding public office, but this will require another procedure within the National Assembly that might take a week or two. If the prime minister decides to resign meanwhile, it would be a good time for the PPP to oblige one of its coalition partners by nominating a PM from its benches.

All this points to an early election, but suggests no overt coup is in the offing. Rather, covert control by the army is a much more likely option. The timing of the election, however, is crucial and would determine whether the PTI can make a big impact. October 2012 seems to be a time that suits everyone, but anything can happen any time in this ‘land of the pure’. As a popular Urdu adage goes, let’s see what posture the camel adopts.

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Marvi Sirmed is a columnist with Daily Times, Pakistan. She is also a member of the Council of Complaints, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulation Authority.