Major changes are not being ruled out in Pakistan even before February 01 when prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani faces the country's apex court again on contempt charges about why his government has not initiated action for re-opening of corruption-related cases against president Asif Ali Zardari, despite an earlier directive by the court. The beleaguered premier faced the court in person last Thursday when he defended his position, saying that the president enjoys immunity under the constitution from corruption-related accusations. As a raging controversy has divided the nation on this issue, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has not accepted the prime minister's contention and asked him to appear again on February 01, although he himself is not needed to appear.
Speculations are making the rounds that the court may declare the incumbent prime minister and the president disqualified because of the "contempt" and order fresh elections in the country or may take decisions that may further compound the present political situation there. However, this may not also happen at all, even as the government remains highly vulnerable and may somehow continue itself to hold on to power in the days ahead. But it is difficult to predict how long it will continue to serve, in that event.
The current situation, resulting from the worsening ties between the government and the military on one hand and somewhat anti-government role of the judiciary on the other, has clearly placed Pakistan in a quandary. Certain factors have spawned conditions for changes that cannot come as a total surprise in a country, whose most part as an independent nation was characterized by army and non-democratic rule as it has seen four military coups. However, the circumstances are now different in some ways.
The main reason for a sharp deterioration in the civil-military ties in Pakistan is the controversy surrounding a "Memo" purported to have been sent by president Zardari to his country's ambassador to the United states requesting the American high-ups to use their influence in forestalling a feared coup in the country. Reports said it was sent by the president in the wake of the killing of Al-Queda leader Osama Bin Laden deep inside Pakistan in May last year, by the US commandoes keeping the authorities in Pakistan in the dark about the "mission" The issue had touched off a national outcry in Pakistan as the operation by the US was seen as an "infringement" upon the country's sovereignty. At the same time, the Islamabad government was also severely criticised by its own people for "failure" to protect the national sovereignty as the civilian government and the military sought to blame each other for not acting in the right time, although both were careful about making their accusation in public.
The issue came to the fore only recently when a Pakistan-born American lobbyist mentioned the matter while the Islamabad government seemingly ignored it. But comments by no less a person than the immediate past chief of joint staff of the US armed forces admiral Mike Mullen lent credence to the "Memo" controversy. Not surprisingly, it had an immediate adverse impact on the sensitive civilian-military relationship, which is particularly important in the context of Pakistan's history. The government played down the matter even though it did not stop gossips swirling around the subject. Earlier, during the devastating floods, the army did a good job in the relief operations while the civil authorities seemed ineffective. Besides, the luxurious foreign trips during that period of a national calamity by president Zardari with the members of his family, were disliked by both the army and the people.
It is against this background that when the unpopular president rushed to Dubai for medical treatment as he was believed to have suffered a minor heart attack, speculations were rife that he might quit the scene, in the face of mounting pressure. Earlier, the Pakistani ambassador to US Hussain Huqqani was removed as a sequel to the "Memo" issue.
Anyway, the chances of Pakistan going under military rule again look less likely even if the ground is rife when considered from the point of view of its army. Army chief Gen. Ashaque Kayani is known as a sound professional, who is unlikely to jump on any "adventure" unless it is totally unavoidable.
Besides, such developments may bring myriad of complications in the context of the present international political scenario -- for obvious reasons of trampling upon democracy. The ruling Peoples Party of Pakistan (PPP) was twice removed from power before its normal electoral tenure was over, when Zardari's wife late Benazir Bhutto was at the helm. The party will certainly spare no efforts this time to tide over the difficulties with the armed forces. Furthermore, the military is quite engaged with the Afghan situation and the war on terror and its worsening relations with the NATO also put it in a more difficult condition. It is unlikely to get itself totally involved directly in running the government although it has since long been exercising its clout, some way or other, from behind the curtain in national affairs.
Will the military intervene directly in the affairs now? Chances seem to be slim, but the army is understood to be keen to see the 'exit' of the present government in some other ways through the verdict of the higher court. Prime Minister Gilani of Pakistan appears to have heaved a sigh of relief when the court asked him to face the contempt charge again on February 01 as the interlude has given his government a breathing space. Besides, the government has done well by securing an endorsement in parliament in favour of continuation of democratic rule. But the country is divided on the issue of "immunity" to the president, as claimed by the government supporters. Why should there be this so-called "immunity" at all for the key figures in democracy especially in matters of corruption? This is argued by those against such a practice, regardless whether it really exists in Pakistan or not. By the same token, shortening the normal tenure of an elected government is also an irrational demand. Then again, it is in Pakistan where former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had to face the "contempt" charge by the apex court and his government was in troubles then. Any other development during the interregnum between now and February 01? The possibility seems to be less but nothing is totally ruled out with most people keeping their fingers crossed.
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