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.”
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.
From the Abbottabad raid to the Mehran naval base attack to the recent NATO bombing, the Pakistani military faced several embarrassments in 2011. Any rational civilian government would look to exploit such a situation and limit the military’s power. Indeed, the People’s Party government attempted exactly this by trying to take charge of the country’s national security policy and relations with the U.S. The military, on the other hand, won’t let power slip away. While it’s not hungry for a coup, it certainly has no appetite for an authoritative executive that seeks to dominate the country’s foreign policy decision-making on key issues and subordinates the armed forces. The military is using the memo issue to pressure the civilian leadership, politically and judicially, and warning it against radical departures from the status quo.
The Supreme Court, too, is using this opportunity to expand its influence on national politics. As noted in a recent New York Times article, the court has already ushered in an era of unparalleled judicial activism, taking on issues of national and local governance. Its decision to refocus on the NRO issue at a time when the civilian government is facing a political crisis seems strategically calculated. Moreover, the court has asymmetrically focused on the government, inquiring charges of treason and corruption against Haqqani and Zardari, respectively, while ignoring those against Pasha and Nawaz Sharif. Personal antagonism between Chief Justice Chaudhary and the president can’t be ruled out as a motivating factor. After all, Zardari did refuse to reinstate the Chief Justice after Musharraf had sacked him. The court is now in a position to determine the government’s fate through its decisions on the NRO and memo cases.
The ultimate impact of this saga has been to corner the People’s Party-led government, and the end result will be to weaken it ahead of next February’s polls. Several politicians are using this occasion to put pressure on the government to hold early elections. The PPP has become deeply unpopular in Pakistan due to worsening social and economic conditions and rampant corruption in the government. I’ve personally observed the situation deteriorate in my last two visits. Urban Pakistanis are suffering due to intense shortages of gas and electricity, while the prices of food and petrol seem uncontrollably high. Many Pakistanis would now like to see the PPP go.
Amongst the bulging posters, one that appears throughout Pakistan now is of Imran Khan. Khan, who is running a campaign akin to Barack Obama’s first presidential run, has become the big hope for urban Pakistanis, and it’s quite likely that the Army could back him to dislodge the government. This, of course, creates challenges for U.S. policy, as a change of guard can complicate the endgame in Afghanistan. While the U.S. cannot – and should not abandon the current government – it must now find a way to accommodate other, less sympathetic, players.
Shehzad H. Qazi is a research associate at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.