It is never a good sign when the head of a nation’s armed forces takes to its newspaper pages to reassure citizens he has no intention of seizing power. Such a statement often precedes a coup by just hours or days.
But when Pakistan’s General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani made the pledge a few days ago, he appeared to mean it. Although no democratic government has ever served out its full term in Pakistan’s 64-year history, it would seem the military has no immediate plans to interrupt the term of this one. The dark joke in Islamabad these days is that the country is such a disaster that the military doesn’t want to run it, either.
Pakistan faces the new year with a greater-than-usual level of political uncertainty and mood of anxiety.
“This is probably the most difficult time the country has faced,” said Shahid Javed Burki, a former finance minister and a historian of the country. “What strikes me this time is that people have lost confidence in the country’s future.”
Relations with the United States are at an all-time low; Pakistanis despise the U.S. drone attacks in their territory and are furious at a November air strike by the Americans that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Pakistan’s economy is in free fall, with the rate of economic growth failing to outstrip that of the population; the news is full of the closing of textile factories and exodus of capital. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari is perceived as manifestly corrupt and is identified as such by international watchdogs.
The energy sector is in complete crisis; there is not enough capacity to keep the lights on for more than an hour or two at a time in any of the urban areas and almost no expansion of electrification to rural ones.
The number of bloody attacks in cities was slightly lower this year than last, but terrorism, waged by the Pakistani Taliban with links to the country’s intelligence service, continues to be a huge problem.
One marked difference in Pakistan today, compared with times past, is that while much of the population is despairing, few people, openly or privately, are calling for the military to step in. “People really want a regime change, but whereas in the past the military was always greeted by great enthusiasm – now I think people have begun to realize that is not the answer,” Mr. Burki said.
And the military itself seems to sense that it would not take power with the ease it has so many times in the past.
“Today in Pakistan there is far greater consensus on continuing democracy, no matter how flawed it is, and so there would be greater opposition to a coup. And second, the media is now a force to reckon with – it would be very difficult to cope with the media asking questions about legitimacy of government if there were a coup,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, director of the Pakistan Institute for Legislative Democracy and Transparency in Islamabad. “The military knows it is not feasible.”
Nevertheless, it is clear that both the military and ISI intend to continue to have a key role in the formulation of government policy, particularly on external affairs, said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent security analyst in Lahore – “but now they feel they can do it better from the sidelines.”
It isn’t just the army that might unseat Mr. Zardari: The Supreme Court has ordered the reopening of corruption cases against him, including one involving millions of dollars he allegedly squirrelled away in a Swiss bank account. Aggrieved, the President has suggested the military is using the court to do its dirty work and undermine democracy.
Apparently sensing a threat, Mr. Zardari took a step that some are interpreting as the anointing of a successor this past week when he invited the prominent lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan to speak in the prestigious last place at a rally marking the fourth anniversary of the assassination of his wife, former president Benazir Bhutto. Mr. Ahsan led the “lawyers’ marches” that played a key role in toppling the last military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. He has been at odds with Mr. Zardari, too, since he was elected, riding a wave of sympathy after Ms. Bhutto was killed – but he is publicly seen as “clean” and is very popular.
He has no elected role, but his sudden elevation suggests Mr. Zardari realizes that he won’t get away with simply handing power to his 23-year-old son, Bilawal. Mr. Ahsan is close to the judiciary – so if he is a new leader in the Pakistan People’s Party, it complicates efforts by the Supreme Court to move against the President. “It’s a very clever move,” Mr. Rizvi said.
But there is more than a full year left on Mr. Zardari’s mandate and it would require complex manoeuvrings to get him out of office. Mr. Mehboob hopes that Mr. Zardari’s coalition allies will abandon him and trigger an early election; others simply want to see him hold on long enough to conclude a democratic handover.
“People want change but they don’t know how to bring it about – they want development, they want participation and there is a lot of frustration as to how to get to that position,” Mr. Burki said. “There are so many problems, one doesn’t see a way out, and nobody qualified is leading the country.”