A game of cat-and-mouse

The confrontation between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led coalition government and the country’s powerful military has subsided, but the respite could be temporary.

As was expected, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani backtracked after issuing some tough anti-army statements. His decision to retract his remarks against Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) head Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha was seen as an effort to defuse the tension and mend fences with the military establishment. There was even talk of some sort of deal, though no evidence was yet available that the democratically elected government and the uniformed generals had done some give-and-take in a bid to repair their damaged ties.

Gilani made his conciliatory statement after holding a meeting with Generals Kayani and Pasha a day earlier in the company of the young Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar to discuss the security issues linked with Afghanistan and coordinate Pakistan’s response to the changing situation in the region following reports that the US and the Afghan Taliban were holding secret peace talks in Qatar. The meeting was deemed necessary and important as Khar was leaving forAfghanistanin the coming days for talks with the Afghan government.

Gilani, handpicked after the 2008 general election by the ruling PPP co-chairman, President Asif Ali Zardari, as the Prime Minister, has earned a dubious reputation as someone who makes statements only to retract or clarify his remarks later. The opposition leader in parliament, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, and other out-of-power politicians taunt him about thinking twice before speaking instead of taking his words back. The army high command had taken exception to Gilani’s allegation that General Kayani and Lt Gen Pasha had acted unconstitutionally and illegally by submitting affidavits to the Supreme Court of Pakistan in the emotive memorandum case without seeking the approval of the relevant authority under the rules of business.

Earlier, the Prime Minister had ‘clarified’ his January 9 statement, clearly aimed at the military, that there should be ‘no state within a state’. The same day he made a hard-hitting statement in the National Assembly by rhetorically asking who gave a ‘visa’ to Osama bin Laden to stay in Pakistan. It was seen as a slur on the military’s performance and gave the impression that the civilian government doubted the army command’s insistence that it was unaware of the al-Qaeda leader’s presence in the military town of Abbottabad. The Prime Minister also appeared to challenge the military’s power by arguing in a recent interaction with journalists that he was responsible to the parliament and not to any individual.

The nation has been kept engrossed in this game of cat-and-mouse for the last several weeks now. After a day of high drama on January 11, when speculations and rumours circulated about a possible military coup, sanity prevailed as the situation calmed down and both the army and the civilian government played down the possibility of a direct showdown. The army claimed it wasn’t plotting a coup and the ruling politicians seem to agree, for the time-being at least.

However, uncertainty continues to prevail as the Supreme Court of Pakistan is still hearing cases against the government, particularly President Zardari. The higher judiciary is complaining that the elected government is not implementing its verdicts and is violating the rule of law. The government, on the other hand, is arguing that it cannot write a letter to the Swiss authorities to open old money-laundering cases against President Zardari as directed by the Supreme Court because he was not only the President but also head of the ruling PPP. The Army on its part has reiterated it would respect the court’s decisions.

The January 11 events unfolded when Prime Minister Gilani fired the secretary of the Defence Ministry, retired Lt Gen NaDem Lodhi, for indiscipline. The sacked official has gone to court to start yet another legal battle against the beleaguered Zardari-Gilani government. The army obviously didn’t like the removal of Lodhi, but it decided against making an issue out of it.  It was provoked more by the Prime Minister’s statement accusing General Kayani and Lt Gen Pasha of acting illegally and unconstitutionally in the memo and other cases being heard by the Supreme Court. The army responded with a hard-hitting statement as it refuted the Prime Minister’s assertions and warned that his remarks could have ‘grievous consequences’.

Though the situation has calmed down, the crisis is far from over due to the growing distrust between the elected government on the one side and the army and the judiciary on the other. In the ongoing case concerning the controversial memo that was delivered by Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz to Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after the May 2 raid by American Special Forces in Abbottabad to kill bin Laden, the jury is still out and a verdict is keenly awaited. .

Citing security concerns, Mansoor Ijaz has refused to come toPakistan. His trip there to appear before the judicial commission investigating the memo case is now uncertain because his lawyer, Akram Chaudhry, has said he won’t advise his client to come to Pakistan unless security clearance is given by the army. Chaudhry wrote letters to the Army chief and the Attorney General of Pakistan to seek assurances that Mansoor Ijaz would not be harmed or detained once he reachesPakistanfrom theUS. He wrote the letter after Interior Minister Rahman Malik, who is loyal to President Zardari, warned that Mansoor Ijaz’s name could be put on the exit control list, barring him from leaving Pakistan in the event of directives by the Parliamentary Committee on National Security.

The PPP-led coalition government has dismissed the memo as a piece of paper not worthy of consideration and is anxious not to let Mansoor Ijaz give his testimony before the Memo Commission set up by the government. It has been accused of blocking Mansoor Ijaz’s journey to Pakistan while the military and the judiciary are keen to hear him and seek more evidence from him to show that Husain Haqqani, former Pakistan ambassador to the US, was the author of the controversial memorandum that sought US help to pre-empt a military takeover in Pakistan in the wake of the May 2 unilateral US military raid in Abbottabad. Mansoor Ijaz has been saying that he was determined to give his testimony before the Memo Commission and also show that Husain Haqqani received instructions from ‘his boss’, who is believed to be President Zardari, to write the memo that sought to cut down to size the powerful Pakistani military.

The memo case isn’t the only reason for the heightened political activity and judicial activism inPakistan. The political temperature also became heated following a notice issued by the Supreme Court to Prime Minister Gilani for committing contempt of court and asking him to appear in court in person on January 19 to answer charges against him. The Prime Minister had made comments defying the Supreme Court after the latter’s judgement that went against the federal government with regard to cases of corruption implicating President Zardari and several other ruling party politicians. After being charged with contempt of court, the Prime Minister met President Zardari and offered to resign. His offer fuelled speculation that President Zardari could be contemplating replacing Gilani as Prime Minister, but nothing of the sort happened and instead the President praised his Premier no end.

Gilani’s day in court was due to the notice served on him by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for showing contempt by not implementing for two years and two months its verdict in the infamous National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) case. He was required to explain why contempt of court proceedings shouldn’t be initiated against him for disobeying the court’s orders. There was a bit of an anti-climax after all the media hype as no conviction took place and no apology was offered by the Prime Minister when he appeared in the Supreme Court. His lawyer Aizaz Ahsan – the hero of the lawyers’ movement for independence of the judiciary and restoration of the Supreme Court judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and now fast becoming a villain in the eyes of many people for defending the indefensible – only managed to get two weeks instead of the one month he had sought from the court to prepare his case. The Prime Minister was exempted from further appearances in the Supreme Court so the next hearing on February 1 will not be as anticipated and colourful as the one on January 19.

The confrontation between the elected government and the military and judiciary first peaked and then slowed down. The military said it wasn’t staging a coup, the judiciary hinted it won’t rock the system and overstep its authority, and the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Gilani opted for a harmless resolution in Parliament, advising all institutions to work within their constitutional limits. The government urged its political allies such as the ANP, MQM, PML-F, etc to back it against any move by the military, judiciary and the combined opposition to unseat it. The opposition parties led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N have also been discussing formation of an alliance to push the government to hold early elections, possibly at the end of 2012. The Senate polls are also due on March 2 and the PPP and its allies are poised to increase their strength in the Upper House of Parliament.

The summer of 2012 should be hotter this year in Pakistan due to the rising political temperature as the government tries to prolong its stay in power until the end of its term next year and the opposition attempts to force early elections. The issue, though, may be decided in the superior courts.