Karachi chalo. Lahore chalo. Mardan chalo. Multan chalo.
Across cities and towns of Pakistan, these are the lusty cries heard at rallies that political parties are busy organising. Party flags flutter across the country, and massive banners vie for attention. TV channels are in a tizzy covering campaigns, yet flooded with complaints from politicians unhappy with ‘inadequate’ coverage. The rhetoric is sharp, and the mood is decidedly that of election-time. From Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to Nawaz Sharif, from Imran Khan and Asfandyar Wali Khan to the Pakistan Defence Council (a grouping of 30 religious parties, including those banned), they have all been moving heaven and earth, straining every muscle and spending their resources to woo the people. They’re also making demands on the Election Commission to scrutinise and finalise the voters list.
You won’t be wrong in thinking that these are men who have lost the sense of time, for the general election in Pakistan isn’t due till March 2013. Why, then, are Pakistan’s political stewards tearing around the country addressing rallies as if the battle of ballots is weeks away? Two factors have fanned the political frenzy—Imran Khan’s spectacular emergence as a force and the scandalous ‘Memogate’ that exploded in November last year, pitting the army against President Asif Ali Zardari. As executive editor of The Express Tribune, M. Ziauddin, told Outlook, “Imran Khan’s impressive jalsa in Lahore came as a jolt that put everyone in election mode. Nawaz Sharif pressed the panic button and started his own campaign. He does not want to give Imran 12 months to organise his party for the elections.... This is a transition period from dictatorship to democracy, thus a vulnerable period. Anything can happen.”
Partly, the excitement reflects the popular mood for change. Fed up with the poor performance of the Zardari-Gilani government, most believe any future dispensation can’t get any worse. A cartoon in The Nation captured the sentiment: pia...Destroyed; Railways...Destroyed; Pakistan Steel Mill...Destroyed; Petrol...Inaccessible; Gas...Inaccessible; CNG...Obsolete; Security...Missing; Law & Order...Missing; Governance...Missing; Necessities...Missing; Merit...Destroyed. It then depicts Gilani saying, “My Rule Means Public Welfare”.
Experts say the Zardari-army stand-off isn’t sustainable, that it has to end one way or the other—something must give.
It’s against this backdrop that the controversy over the Memogate—and rumours of a coup—must be looked at. Memogate refers to an unsigned memo allegedly written and sent by the Pakistani ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani, to Mansoor Ejaz, an American businessman, who delivered it to former US army chief Admiral Mike Mullen. The memo was a plea from Zardari to Washington for preventing a military coup, and promising, in return, to cut the ISI down to size and compromise on the country’s nuclear policy. The army was livid at this betrayal, and rumours of an impending coup began to swirl about.
It was then that Sharif stepped in, petitioning the Supreme Court to investigate the scandal. His aim was doublefold—make it difficult for the army to stage a coup, a precipitous step unlikely to be taken as long as the matter was pending in the Supreme Court; and two, hope the investigation could yield evidence of Zardari’s complicity in the whole affair. In such an eventuality, he and Gilani could be accused of high treason which, under Article 6 of the Constitution, empowers Parliament to punish the guilty. And though Zardari enjoys legal immunity as president, such a verdict would make his position untenable.
Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and ISI chief Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha heeded the court’s direction and filed their affidavits. Gilani rubbished the existence of the Haqqani memo, yet, contrarily, agreed to set up a parliamentary committee to investigate the issue, and forced Haqqani’s resignation. As the court continued to hear the maintainability of Sharif’s petition, Gilani publicly accused the army of planning a coup. The Supreme Court has recently appointed a judicial commission to investigate Memogate, a decision which saw Haqqani’s lawyer, Asma Jehangir, resign in protest. The commission has now issued a notice to Zardari, asking him to appear before it. As TV host Nusrat Javeed told Outlook, “This standoff is no more sustainable. It has to end one way or the other. It is early elections or else.... Something has to give.” Considering the hectic political campaigning, an early election seems the popular expectation.
But why has Kayani, unlike his predecessors, not taken advantage of the popular discontent and staged a coup? For one, there has been a paradigm shift in the country’s power equation. Earlier, generals staged coups by persuading the president to invoke his special constitutional powers to dismiss the government. Not only does the president not have the power to dismiss a government, this time round, he and the PM are sticking together. Second, the judiciary is now a strong power centre. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, a fierce believer in an independent judiciary, could well declare a coup unconstitutional, thus undermining its very legitimacy. Third, the army isn’t as powerful as it was in the past. Both Kayani and Pasha are on an extension, which has been cause of some heartburn in the army. The myth of the army’s might, and its credibility, was shattered as the Americans flew into Pakistani airspace undetected and killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden near a Abbotabad cantonment. Add to this the NATO strikes from Afghanistan that have resulted in casualties in the army, and the attack on the Mehran naval base with the alleged complicity of insiders.
This isn’t to say that a coup can be categorically ruled out. No doubt, Kayani has publicly tried to dispel fears of a coup, yet kept the option open, saying that “irrespective of all other considerations, there can be no compromise on national security”. This is the point he stressed upon in his affidavit to the Supreme Court: “The memo episode has an impact on national security.” Doubts about Kayani’s intent—and the generals’ brazen interference in politics—is the reason why the army’s restraint hasn’t been commended. Says Ziauddin, “The army is not fighting battles in foreign countries or inside the country. Rather, they have stooped to the level of fighting scum like Haqqani. They have not forgiven him for his book, which was critical of the armed forces and for lobbying with the Obama administration to ensure that the Kerry Lugar Bill was conditional (aid was to continue under a democratically-elected government) and the army kept in its place.”
Political analyst Farrukh Saleem feels the army’s interference in politics boils down to a ‘smart coup’. He defined the term in The News: “A smart coup will be slow and legal whereby all or most of the critical elements of the state apparatus will be replaced by forces that can help ghq achieve its national security plus economic agenda.” ‘Smart Coup’, he wrote, testifies to the powers of the Supreme Court—instead of ordering the 111th Brigade (responsible for most coups) to throw out the government, the ghq is looking up to the court for resolving disputes between institutions. “There is evidence that the Supreme Court, this time around, is in no mood to grant an ex post facto validation to a coup d’etat,” he said.
Sharif appealed for a probe on Memogate to keep the army from a coup, while hoping Zardari would be in trouble.
An early election suits the army too. It could help them get rid of Zardari, besides holding out the hope that their other bete noir, Sharif, could be stopped in his tracks by the third force of Imran Khan. Analysts, however, caution against underestimating Zardari. They point out that he opted to stay in prison where he withstood harsh treatment for eight years even as his wife and fomer PM Benazir chose to go in exile. Ziauddin says, “Pakistan’s civil servants, judiciary, media and the army have met their match in Zardari. He sent his PM for a frontal attack on the army when Gilani demanded to know in Parliament who gave visa to Osama bin Laden for six years?” Ziauddin says the man who is holding the strongest cards is Chief Justice Chaudhry, as Kayani is neither in a mood nor in a position to take over the reins of governance. “But I am certain that Chaudhry will not go to a point of no return. He will continue to keep the government under pressure and keep alive judicial activism,” says Ziauddin.
Declining popularity is why the government is trying to whip up public sympathy. It’s acting as a martyr, moaning and grumbling that it is not being allowed to function. But no one is convinced. Perhaps Zardari’s most effective card could come only if the generals, in their impatience and hubris, engineer his removal. This would make him join the list of Sindhi leaders—Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Mohammad Khan Junejo and Benazir—whom the army illegitimately evicted from power. And the Sindhi card, we all know, has proved handy in the past.