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Possible Political Scenarios in Pakistan

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 16, 2012

    The Pakistan government and military are on a collision course. Prime Minister Gilani has accused the generals of behaving unconstitutionally. The Army has warned the government of grave consequences. The judiciary has set up a commission to investigate ‘memogate’. The political crisis is deepening at a time when Pakistan’s economy is in crisis. The most obvious question is whether there will be another military coup in Pakistan?

    The Pakistan army has been on the back foot since the Osama bin Laden episode. Its relationship with the US is at its lowest. The army has targeted President Zardari, the Commander in Chief, for his role in memogate. It is using the courts to put pressure on the government in order to oust it without having to intervene directly.

    It is difficult to predict what might happen. But several scenarios can be envisaged.

    Scenario I: Military Takeover

    The conditions for direct intervention by the army appear ripe but this time around it will have to think many times before staging a coup. There are several reasons why a direct intervention by the army may not happen. First, a military coup will isolate Pakistan internationally. In the US there will be no support for the coup from the current Obama administration. Pakistan’s economy is in shambles and is unlikely to survive a military take over. Second, Pakistan has tasted democracy in the last few years. The judiciary has emerged as an important and unpredictable force in Pakistani politics. In the past, the judiciary sanctified the various coups. This time around the situation is different. The judiciary played an important role in the end of the last phase of military rule. Pakistan’s media is also relatively free. In addition, no political party is willing to risk a direct military coup.

    Another variant of the military takeover scenario is a soft coup similar to what happened in Bangladesh in 2006. The military creates a front and rules from behind the scene, although no one is talking about it at the moment.

    The prospects for a military coup, therefore, appear to be low.

    Scenario 2: No Coup But Early Elections

    In the fast changing scenario, it will be difficult to be sanguine about the government lasting its full term, particularly when the entire range of forces in Pakistan is ranged against it. The government is also under tremendous pressure for its non performance. The status quo cannot last. There is too much of political instability in Pakistan. The political-military equilibrium has been disturbed severely. Some thing must give in. The possibility of premature elections cannot be ruled out. The timing of the elections however will be a matter of political expediency.

    Scenario 3: Popular Protests

    What about the people coming on to the streets as in the Arab world? This could be the third scenario. The lawyers’ movement, after all, had triggered Musharaf’s decline. The youth, empowered by social media, can mobilise quickly against the establishment. People’s power is a wild card in Pakistan. If people come on to the streets, there could be anarchy and bloodshed in Pakistan. The unintended outcome of such a movement need not be more democracy but could pave the way for a military-mullah takeover.

    Scenario 4: The Wild Card – the Government Lasts its Full Term

    A face-saving reconciliation between the government and the generals cannot be ruled out if the army does not show an appetite for a coup. Kayani has met Zardari and also attended Defence Committee of the Cabinet meeting chaired by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has also toned down his rhetoric although he has emphasised the need for different institutions working within their constitutional boundaries. If the army is not in favour of a coup, attempts could be made to defuse the tension through a compromise between the army and the government, with some leadership change acting as a face-saver. One possibility under consideration is that Gilani, who has taken on the army frontally, may be replaced by someone else. A lot must be happening behind the scenes about which little reliable information is available.

    The political scene in Pakistan has changed quite dramatically. The emergence of Imran Khan as a leader of national stature has been quite rapid and unexpected. He is drawing huge crowds in his rallies and is talking the language of anti-west, anti-Americanism and pro-Islam. Many feel that he has the army’s support but he denies it. But several of his high profile advisers have been supported in the past by the army. He may be acceptable to the Islamists as well. His party PTI may do well in the elections although it is unclear whether it will be able to win a majority by itself. Imran Khan has called for the resignations of the President and the Prime Minster. He wants early elections and has declared that he is against an army take over.

    It would appear that the fears of a military takeover are exaggerated but political instability will continue and may even deepen. It should not be forgotten that despite its numerous weaknesses, the government has survived many crises since it came to power in 2008 – Nawaz Sharrif’s ‘Long March’ threat, floods, the TTP’s terror attacks, floods, the Osama Bin Laden raid, the killing of Pakistani soldiers in NATO attacks, etc. It may survive the memogate crisis too. No doubt, this time around the government and the army are in direct and open confrontation, but a military coup is in no one’s interest including that of the army.

    Whatever scenario might unfold, the army, as always, will remain the most important driver of Pakistan’s destiny. It would, however, seem that direct military intervention may not take place. The government is, however, living dangerously. The recent decision by the National Accountability Bureau to reopen corruption cases may destabilise the President as well as the government. Early elections are possible.

    Growing instability in Pakistan should be a matter for concern for the international community and for Pakistan’s neighbours. The current round of instability coincides with instability in Afghanistan and the rising tensions in US-Iran relations. The outside world would be watching these developments with keen interest and anxiety given that Pakistan is a nuclear armed country with a large number of radical groups many of them patronised by the establishment.

    In the evolving scenario, the Indo-Pak normalisation process will be on hold. The Pakistan government is hardly in a position to deliver on 26/11 or on MFN status for India. India will need to watch the situation carefully and remain on the alert. India should not wittingly or unwittingly get into the internal affairs of Pakistan.

    The author is Director General, IDSA. The views are personal.