Recent events in Pakistan make pure political theatre: the government clashing with the judiciary, ominous signs from the military, the media in overdrive claiming a coup is imminent against an allegedly corrupt and inefficient government, while Imran Khan remains the saviour in waiting.
To make sense of this farce, context is illuminating. General Musharraf’s legacy, in many respects an extension of General Zia’s heritage, has been the creation of religiously conservative institutions. In particular, the pro-military judiciary, where dissidents were expelled for refusing to legitimate military rule; a constitutional edifice that invested the president with a monopoly of power (allowing him to bend institutions and political parties to his will); and satellite television that is openly conservative in nature. Reprisals following his clash with the judiciary and muzzling of the media were directed against Musharraf in person rather than the institution he represented: the military. His departure from the scene and the elections of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) left the establishment, with the exception of the political administration, in the hands of conservative institutions, all of which were hostile to the PPP in general and the Bhutto family in particular.
What has surprised most political observers has been the ascent of Zardari to the presidency and his ability to win over political opponents, bolstering the strength of the PPP administration. The single credible and laudable achievement made by the PPP government, and an important contribution to the development of democracy, is constitutional reform. The 18th Amendment made the president titular in nature, introduced devolution of power to the provinces, removed the possibility of courts sanctioning military rule, and made the appointment of the head of the election commission independent of the presidency.
However, this has only increased the sense of urgency among conservatives in the army, civil service and in particular the media and judiciary, that the PPP administration has to be stopped in order to abate the further unravelling of the gains made by the right under Zia: gains not made through consensus but at the point of a gun. The judiciary’s personal hostility to Zardari led it to declare that the National Reconciliation Order was unconstitutional and that a judicial commission must investigate the ‘memogate’ scandal. The government’s attempts to kick the court’s decision into the long grass failed when the Supreme Court charged the current prime minister, Gilani, with contempt of court.
Relations with the army have deteriorated even while they maintain a monopoly over Afghan, Indian and nuclear policy as well as the simmering insurgency in Baluchistan. Even with a carte blanche on these issues, the army want the PPP government to go. The anti-American hysteria generated by the army and the media is a fig leaf for their real concern; the Kerry-Lugar Bill, which threatens to challenge the institutional imbalance in Pakistan by channelling US aid to exclusively civilian organisations at the expense of the military. In response, the military conjured up the spectre of threats to national sovereignty, which spiralled with the Raymond Davis shootings, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the attack on a military post by Coalition forces in Mohamand agency. This hysteria was drummed up to foment a sense of crisis within the government. However, the army was duplicitous in it real intentions as in private it was happy with the ongoing drone strikes and cooperation with the United States. The military needs a sense of crisis as a backdrop against which to initiate a change of government. Direct action would have too high a price, with all political parties united against them, and would lead to automatic sanctions and embargos by the international community.
The army doesn’t seek political change. Nor does it want its ex-protégé Nawaz Sharif, who is seen as a renegade, in government. Sharif is clear that, as prime minister, he would not kowtow to non-elected institutions, having clashed with the presidency and the courts in the 1990s, and, more importantly, having dismissed army chiefs, which ultimately led to Musharraf’s ascendency. He has strong relations with the judiciary and the army fears that, with Sharif in power, they could find the government and the courts against them.
The preferred alternative is Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, led by Imran Khan, who has publically denied having official support among the military. The ISI has a long and dubious history in interfering in the political process, making and breaking alliances and buying politicians. Khan is mostly uncritical of the army, is openly hostile to US policy and claims that he will introduce a new form of politics, free from domination by the landed elites and, more importantly, free from corruption. This policy platform has gained him some support in the Punjab, among Pakistan’s youth and women, and has potentially allowed him to tap a thick seam of discontent. However, he is unlikely to win an election outright, even with his deep pockets, as the PPP still has considerable support (but not quite enough) to win power again. Thus it is essential that Zardari should be removed from office, allowing the president to invite another candidate to form a government. With that remit a candidate can cobble together a coalition, particularly if the army is won over. If Zardari remains in power he could do a deal with Nawaz Sharif and form a coalition, a disaster for the army. Thus the generals hope that the judiciary will remove the president, allowing for a more pliable candidate to take his palace.
Gilani has two options: acquiesce to the courts, as a delaying tactic, or, more likely, make this a political issue by announcing national elections. The alternatives are that the courts dismiss the government, with the army enforcing this order, or that the PPP is pressurised into handing over power to an interim government. The army must surely prefer the latter as it would achieve its objective of bringing its preferred candidate, Imran Khan, to power.