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Pakistan: Is A Judicial Coup in the Offing?

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 13, 2012

    The political drama ostensibly started by the memo-gate episode sees no sign of an early burial. Both the government and the Army have stuck to their guns on the issue and are heading towards a confrontation that is likely to have a disastrous consequence for the nascent democracy in Pakistan. The main player that would determine the future scenario is Pakistan’s Supreme Court, although its actions in the recent past have not been above board. The timing of the crisis ostensibly is the forthcoming senate election scheduled in March, which would allow the PPP to win a majority of seats and thus give it an important say in matters of state till 2015. The Army and other political actors do not want this; hence their willing participation in efforts to topple the government through the judiciary and force an early election.

    The military-PPP tussle has been brewing for sometime. The PPP’s decision to put the ISI under the Prime Minister’s office and Zardari’s speech denying that India is a threat, assuring that Pakistan will not be the first to use nuclear weapons against India, describing the Kashmiri rebels as terrorists were the biggest political gaffes on the part of the civilian government in a country where the Army retains real authority to determine the policies and direct the discourse on these matters. Moreover, the effort of the civilian authority to keep the army under check through the Kerry-Lugar bill and later the alleged request to the US to check the Army’s predatory instincts through the controversial memo have made the Generals say enough is enough. Earlier, in 2009, in an attempt to reduce the Army’s pressure on him, President Zardari had transferred the Chairmanship of the Nuclear Command Authority to Prime Minister Gilani.

    The government has largely survived so far since there was no political alternative to the PPP. Nawaz Sharif has remained a steady baiter of the Army. For sometime the Army contemplated upon working with Shahbaz Sharif but without success. The Army also tried to co-opt Gilani by throwing its weight around him when he sacked the National Security Adviser Mahamud Ali Durrani for speaking to the media on the Mumbai attack after consulting only the President. But Gilani had his limitations. Zardari is not just the President of the country but also the co-chairperson of the PPP. The deterioration of the Army’s relations with the US and the memo-gate issue coincided with the emergence of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI), thus providing the Army not just with an opportunity but an alternative option to bring about the change that it has been seeking. What could be more to the liking of the Army than the fact that the PTI shares the Army’s ideology of current anti-Americanism as well as has sympathies for the Islamists?

    The judiciary has also been nursing a sense of grievance for a long time. After its election, the PPP was reluctant to restore Iftikhar Chowdhury as the Chief Justice. He was restored only with the help of Army mediation and after the sacking of the PML-N government and imposition of Governor’s rule in Punjab threatened to destabilize the newly elected government. Chowdhury subsequently rejected the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) terming it as illegal. The judiciary-executive tussle has been going on for some time with both sides trying to assert their supremacy. Memo-gate also provided the opportunity which the judiciary has been looking for, for sometime.

    It is not surprising that the judiciary has now chosen to ask the government to comply with the 2010 NRO order. The six options that it has provided to the government with a tight deadline reflect its willingness to become party to the destabilization efforts. This is in spite of repetitive announcements by the Chief Justice that illegal coups would not be tolerated by the judiciary. It was in fact Nawaz Sharif’s petition filed in the memo-gate case that opened up the Pandora’s Box. The military has filed a separate reply bypassing the Defence Ministry, which led to Gilani’s controversial interview to the Chinese daily terming it unconstitutional.

    The civilian government is giving out signals that it is still in control. Gilani has asserted that he was consulted before Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR) issued the statement clarifying its position on the memo-gate issue, after Gilani’s interview to the Chinese daily. However, the text of the ISPR release, which warned of ‘serious ramification with potential grievous consequence for the country’, does not reflect Gilani’s assertion. Sacking of the Defence Secretary was to signal the Army that the PPP was prepared to become a political martyr in this highly publicized drama. The Army’s appointment of a new commander to the infamous 111 brigade, which has been at the forefront of previous coups, was to signal the civilian government not to go too far. Most importantly, the political parties, though critical of the functioning of the PPP government, are not willing to support any move that throws democracy out of gear. They have rather cautioned the government to be careful to avoid a confrontation.

    All the parties in this game are hardening their positions keeping their respective constituency in mind. While the PML-N is aiming at early elections, the Army wants to somehow delay the Senate election, which will provide the PPP with a majority given the electoral calculations. The judiciary has emerged as a decisive player that would determine the future. The Government has been trying to blunt the judiciary by taking refuge under Presidential immunity. The villain in this entire game for whose blood the Army and the judiciary as well as the opposition are gunning is President Zardari who until now has played his part of the game cleverly. Zardari realizes that even though the PPP government is unpopular, people do not have an appetite for another military coup. Therefore, he is hedging his bets to muddle through and conduct the Senate elections in time. Considering the fact that it would be difficult for the Government to complete its five year term, he is perhaps preparing for an early election around September-October this year.

    In all likelihood, there may not be a military coup in Pakistan but the country may witness for the first time the spectacle of the judiciary acting as a major factor in political change. It is all set to perform the job for the opposition as well as the military by pressuring the government to either resign or pave the way for the next elections. The Army will achieve its objective of removing the government while the judiciary takes the blame. The only option left for the PPP will be to go for a confidence vote, establish its legitimacy for the time being, and go for early elections as per its own convenience. This may salvage the PPP’s declining image which is marred by corruption and misgovernance charges and help it emerge as a winner from the political mess it is in today.