Pakistan: democracy in danger

Tensions between the civilian Zardari-Gilani Government and the Army inPakistanare rising, with the Army-smitten Supreme Court and the Government’s main opposition, the Nawaz Muslim League, indirectly supporting the military. But it would be too hasty to conclude thatPakistan’s political history will soon repeat itself with the Army staging a coup. A coup may not be on the horizon for both foreign and domestic reasons.

Coups in Pakistan in the past had the direct or indirect blessing of theUnited States, which benefited the most from them. At present the Pakistani Generals and the US do not enjoy their past ‘lovey-dovey’ relationship, at least not openly. Meanwhile, the Chinese, who maintain happy relations with anybody who rules Islamabad, may have a lurking desire to see an Army-backed fundamentalist Islamic Government inPakistan. Their befriending of Jamat-e-Islami and Islam-professing Imran Khan, the founder leader of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), are some indications to this effect. In other words,Chinamay favour the continuation of democracy with Islamist rulers who would be hostile toIndiaand theUSand be helpful in tackling the Muslim uprising in its province,Xinxiang.

Mansur Ijaz, the Pakistani American who kicked off the memo controversy, has reportedly said that ISI Chief Lt General Shuja Pasha had gone to some Arab countries to sound them about a possible military coup. According to The Independent website, Ijaz has said: ‘Their [US Intelligence agencies’] information was that Pasha travelled to a few Arab countries to talk about what the necessary line of action would be in the event that they had to remove Zardari from power and so forth.’ Those who trust in Ijaz’s memo story should have no problems trusting this statement of his too. Taking this statement to be correct, one cannot imagine an encouraging response from his Arab host countries, who are themselves in the midst of bloody anti-dictatorship revolts. The Arab League’s stand on dictatorship in Syria and the violent changes inLibya and Egypt should discourage aspiring Generals from overthrowing an elected Government to re-establish a military dictatorship.

While foreign affairs may not encourage the Army to take over power just now, the domestic situation is still more discouraging, mainly because of the economic mess and the suspension of ready dollars that the Generals are used to. Moreover, the single declared target of the military, the Supreme Court and the Nawaz Muslim League is President Asif Ali Zardari, who is also the co-chairperson of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The Army, as well as others, know very well that after the assassination of Party Chairperson Benazir Bhutto, the entire edifice of the present PPP-led Government and indeed the whole party organization stands on the corner-stone of the person of Mr Zardari. In other words, if Mr Zardari goes, the present Government will collapse and PPP workers and supporters will be like sheep without their shepherd. PPP Chairperson and Benazir-Zardari son Bilawal is too young, inexperienced and ignorant of the complications of Pakistani society and politics; which means that if Mr Zardari is removed, democracy in Pakistan will receive a crippling blow and law lessness and terrorism will receive a big boost. Thus political power for the Army just now would be worse than a crown of thorns. But it will mark its time.

The present strategy of the Army is likely to be three-pronged: first, destabilise and bring down the present Government; second, groom Imran Khan and help him win the next election, with the support of those PPP workers who will be in the wilderness once the PPP Government falls; and third, use ‘Prime Minister’ Imran to make up with the US and Europe in order to resume aid donations. Then, once the aid starts showing up, use the media to project him as the most immature of all the past prime ministers and an immoral person to boot, who poses a security risk because of his marriage to an Irish woman and connection with other European females. Finally, with the help of a media campaign, the military takeover ‘to save the country’ can begin.

The first prong of the attack is to remove the Government. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who has always shown signs of submission to the Army, lost his cool on December 22 when he told the National Assembly that the Army was conspiring to topple the PPP Government but no institution would be allowed to create a ‘state within a state’. ‘They are all under Parliament,’ he said. He also took a swipe at the Supreme Court when he criticised its judge-led Commission, which is inquiring into the killing of al-Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad last May. Mr Gilani said Parliament had assigned the Commission the task of finding out how bin Laden had managed to live inPakistanfor six years, but it had failed to look into this question. ‘Instead it asked who issued visas to the Americans. But I ask who gave a visa to Osama to live inPakistan.’ Mr Gilani also called the ‘memogate’ affair a ‘non issue’ on which the Supreme Court is spending too much time. It is a case for Parliament’s National Security Committee to probe into but not for the Supreme Court, which is acting on an application from the Opposition Nawaz Muslim League, argues his Government.

On December 27 Mr Zardari addressed a massive gathering at Garhi Khuda Bux in Larkana (Sindh) on the fourth anniversary of the death of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was twice Prime Minister of Pakistan. He used this occasion to vent his anger against the Supreme Court and the Army, saying that the former was clinging to ‘one issue’ while ignoring many other major issues such as Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. The ‘one issue’ he was referring to was the memo controversy, although he did not allude to it by name because the case is currently sub judice, under consideration by the court.

Pakistan’s civilian leadership says the case is political and aimed at removing Mr Zardari from his position as President. Zardari is alleged to have directed Pakistan’s US ambassador, Hussain Haqqani, to appeal to theUSto prevent a possible military coup inPakistanfollowing the killing of Osama bin Laden. Both Zardari and Haqqani have denied this, but Mansur Ijaz insists he wrote the memo at Haqqani’s request. While the military considers it a grave matter, the Government calls it a ‘non issue’. Furthermore, the civilian authorities believe the judiciary is interfering with Government work. Mr Zardari reminded the Army about the victory of the democratic forces led by Aung San Suu Kyi against the military dictatorship inMyanmarand also criticised the Army’s objections to the granting of Most Favoured Nation status toIndia.

Mr Zardari’s public meeting at Garhi Khuda Bux was reportedly attended by about three hundred thousand mourners, whereas Imran Khan had been able to draw only a hundred thousand to his well-publicised meeting near the Quaid-e-Azam Mazar two days earlier. Never the less, Khan’s meeting was shown by electronic media the whole day while Zardari’s was played down. It is well known that a very large section of the media inPakistanreceives its instructions from the ISI.

To a cheering crowd, Mr Khan promised to makePakistanan Islamic welfare state, saying that 90 per cent of his policies would be aimed at free education and healthcare for the people, and that he would make good on every promise made at Quaid-e-Azam.

These promises are going to hang like a dead albatross round his neck. If he tries to makePakistanan Islamic welfare state, he will have to first find an acceptable definition of the word ‘Islamic’ in a country where no two Muslims agree on the definition of ‘Muslim’. As for free healthcare and education, he will have to find money in a country where most people don’t pay income tax and are used to receiving foreign aid. Furthermore, if he keeps to his word, which of his words at Quaid-e-Azam are we to believe? At one point he saidPakistanwould go back to the Holy Quran and on another occasion claimed that the State of Pakistan would not have a religion of its own.

If these promises become part of his election manifesto, any government he forms will collapse sooner rather than later. Then the military can confidently repeat Ayub Khan’s declaration that the people ofPakistanare not fit for democracy.

Samuel Baid