Pakistani Politics Gets Messier
Image Credit: Heinrich Böll Stiftung

Pakistani Politics Gets Messier


As visitors drive out of Karachi’s Jinnah Airport, they are greeted, unexpectedly, by brightly colored and oversized billboards advertising Pakistan’s major political parties. Karachi’s major roads are also covered in campaign paraphernalia, as are many parts of Lahore. It’s quickly apparent to visitors that these are dynamic times in Pakistan’s political landscape. But while a democratic competition ensues in some cities, a more hazardous and egoistic battle is underway in Pakistan’s capital that has pitted the country’s civil government against both the military and the Supreme Court.

It all began with an op-ed written by Mansoor Ijaz, a controversial Pakistani-American businessman, in which he claimed that soon after the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, a senior Pakistani diplomat sought his help in delivering a memorandum to Adm. Mike Mullen in which U.S. help was sought in overthrowing Pakistan’s Army and intelligence chiefs and in reforming the Inter-Services Intelligence. The diplomat who allegedly wrote the memo was soon revealed to be Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States. This ignited a heated row between the military and civilian government, and Haqqani resigned a few days later. As the military began investigating the affair, with ISI Director General Ahmad Shuja Pasha personally flying to London to get Ijaz’s story, rumors of coups and removals circulated. In a game of political posturing, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani warned the military that a parallel state wouldn’t be tolerated.

Simultaneously, Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, filed a petition in the Supreme Court requesting a judicial investigation into the “Memogate” affair. This dragged a third state institution into the controversy as the top court formed an investigative commission. The standoff further worsened when Gilani sacked his defense secretary, a retired military officer, and criticized the Army and the ISI for violating the Constitution by submitting replies to the court in its investigation of the memo without the government’s approval. Gen. Parvez Kayani, who had earlier denied intentions of a coup, now warned Gilani that his comments could have “potentially grievous consequences for the country.”

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In another twist, the Supreme Court warned the government against implementing the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) of 2007. The NRO, which was promulgated to strike a power-sharing deal between President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, granted amnesty to politicians and civil servants facing corruption charges. The court had first issued a petition to void the NRO in December 2009 and ordered reopening corruption cases against Zardari. Since the orders were ignored, the court found Gilani in contempt and summoned him.

State institutions are notorious for influencing and pursuing policies to achieve their own parochial interests, and in the current crisis there appears a concerted effort by each of these major institutions to not only safeguard their own turf, but to use their authority to influence Pakistan’s foreign and domestic politics.

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