Breathing easy

Published : Feb 24, 2012 00:00 IST

Pakistan: The PPP-led coalition government appears to have survived the twin attacks from the apex court and the military.

in Islamabad

AS this copy was being written on January 30, news began coming in that the Supreme Court of Pakistan had given a two-month extension to the commission looking into the memogate controversy and lifted the ban on Husain Haqqani, former Ambassador to the United States, from travelling overseas.

Just for the record, memogate is the name given to the controversy kicked up by the allegation made by Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz that he had submitted a memo to Admiral Mike Mullen, when he was Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, on behalf of Haqqani seeking Washington's intervention to abort a military takeover in Pakistan, following the U.S. raid in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011, to capture Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. For three months, this one allegation has been used to pile up pressure on the federal government by its political opponents, the military and the apex court.

But now, clearly, the urgency attached to the case that has preoccupied Pakistan and raised the spectre of another coup has eased. While the future can never be told with any certitude, the general consensus is that this blighted nation administered by the military for half its existence and living in perennial anticipation of a coup whenever the bloody civilians are in charge may have passed a historical milestone through the portals of memogate.

Never in Pakistan's collective memory has the civilian dispensation looked the military in the eye. And here is a government that not only stood eyeball-to-eyeball with the men in battle fatigues but lived on to tell its tale. At least for now, though the general view is that having survived the twin attacks from the Supreme Court and the military in quick succession, the democratic dispensation may just complete its term or have the luxury of calling for the next general election due in the first half of 2013 on its own terms. Given that the odds are still stacked against the civilian government particularly the one headed by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) that has never been the darling of the chattering class or the media, which is increasingly setting the nation's agenda no one is willing to risk asserting that coups and martial law are a thing of the past. But, yes, it has become a tad more difficult to overthrow a democratically elected government.

After the Abbotabad raid, which made the security establishment look complicit/complacent or both, the PPP-led coalition is once again breathing easy after facing another fight for survival. Never allowed to settle down what with President Asif Ali Zardari's Mr.10 per cent reputation hanging like an albatross around the neck of the PPP government which was formed after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto it is his tenacity that has carried the day for the PPP.

True to his Baloch origins, Zardari has proved to be a fighter, and his Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, has also shown some mettle in this controversy using it to call a spade a spade after waffling through earlier pinpricks. As the Supreme Court and the military began breathing down their necks, Gilani for the first time articulated the question that many have asked since May 2.

The Zardari dispensation sacrificed its Ambassador to the U.S. by asking Haqqani to step down, in a bid to appease the military. When this did not suffice, the PPP decided to go for the jugular and, if destiny so willed, go down fighting. Faced with allegations that Haqqani was too pro-American and was responsible for issuing a large number of visas to Americans, Gilani for the first time asked the question that die-hard democrats had been craving to hear from him since May 2: How was bin Laden living here for so long? What visa was he on?

This he asked in Parliament on December 22, making it part of parliamentary record along with the observation that the Army behaved like a state within a state. In successive speeches around Christmas time, the Premier maintained the attack on the security establishment while voicing fears of an overthrow of his government.

Given the drift of the narrative, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Ashfaq Parvez Kayani sought to set the record straight on December 23 by clarifying that the Army has and will continue to support the democratic process in the country. Speaking to troops in forward areas in Mohmand and Khurram tribal agencies along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border on December 23, he described speculations of a military takeover as a bogey to divert focus from real issues.

Although things did pipe down for a while, matters came to a head as soon as the new year began. The Prime Minister, in an interview to the People's Daily Online of China, described the responses given by the COAS and the Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (DG ISI) to the Supreme Court in the memo case as unconstitutional and illegal. He said this while General Kayani was on an official visit to China.

A livid Army shot back that there can be no allegation more serious than what the Honourable Prime Minister has levelled against [the] COAS and the DG ISI and has unfortunately charged the officers for violation of the Constitution of the country. This has very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country.

This time, clearly, the beleaguered Prime Minister had upped the ante, for, on December 16, he had at a meeting with Kayani agreed that the replies forwarded by the COAS and the DG ISI to the Supreme Court were routed through the proper channel and were in accordance with the rules of business, and should not be misconstrued as indicating a standoff between the Army and the government. This statement issued by the Prime Minister's Secretariat, after his meeting with the COAS, was flagged by the Army in its rejoinder to Gilani's interview.

Simultaneously, the Supreme Court began heaping pressure on the government to reopen graft cases scrapped under the National Reconciliation Ordinance promulgated by the Pervez Musharraf regime against Zardari and others. Billing Gilani as a dishonest man, it gave six options to the government for implementation by January 16.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, the government decided to slug it out, calling an emergency session of Parliament where it managed to get a resolution passed securing support for the democratically elected dispensation and reiterating the need for all institutions of the state to work within their parameters. But hours before this resolution was adopted, the Supreme Court hauled up the Prime Minister for contempt of court for failing to reopen corruption cases against Zardari and asked him to appear before it on January 19. The stage appeared to be set for what was billed as a constitutional coup even as Zardari continued his parleys with the military top brass to iron out the rough spots. A mellowed down Prime Minister appeared before the court at the appointed hour but stuck to his guns regarding the reopening of cases, maintaining that the President enjoyed presidential immunity like most heads of state.

Although Gilani had appointed noted lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan to represent him, the Prime Minister addressed the court himself. In Ahsan, the Prime Minister not only had a lawyer of repute but also one of the leading lights of the lawyers' movement against the Musharraf regime for reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other members of the superior judiciary.

The Prime Minister managed a reprieve from the court in that he does not have to personally appear again, but the case is expected to go on, as will memogate. For now, however, everyone has stepped back from the precipice as more questions are being asked about the conduct of the higher judiciary and the military.

In a rather telling comment on the conduct of the Supreme Court on January 25, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) expressed grave concern over the infringement of the rights of Haqqani who, fearful for his life, has been living in the Prime Minister's residence since his return from Washington.

Referring to the Commission of Inquiry set up by the Supreme Court in the memogate, the ICJ said: There are legitimate concerns that in convening this Commission, the Supreme Court may have overstepped its constitutional authority and that this action could undermine the ongoing parliamentary inquiry. We are calling on the Pakistani authorities to respect Haqqani's right to be presumed innocent and to remove the restriction on his right to leave the country and any other restrictions on his right to freedom of movement. Meanwhile, Ijaz, the man who set off the chain of events with his allegations, has doggedly avoided appearing before the commission on the premise that his life was in danger in Pakistan, amid reports which suggested that the federal government had plans to put his name on the Exit Control List to prevent him from leaving the country. This has been interpreted in some quarters as a veiled threat to the man whose allegations have threatened the democratic set-up.

Still, his request to both the commission and the Supreme Court to testify overseas has been turned down, leading to predictions of a closure of memogate slowly but surely. The case does not seem to be making any progress, and all key players have called it a truce with the Prime Minister even retracting his remarks against the COAS and the DG ISI.

Now that the dust seems to be settling on these fronts, the PPP is nurturing dreams of securing a majority in the Upper House of Parliament for the next six years as Senate elections are round the corner. The way the numbers are stacked up in all the provincial assemblies, the PPP is assured of the upper hand in the Senate elections, even as political rallies are becoming the order of the day with the possibility of the general elections being held ahead of schedule.

Whether they are held as per schedule in 2013 or when the PPP government chooses to go to the polls, the Zardari dispensation will be the first democratically elected government since Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's to complete a full term. This is no mean achievement in a country where democracy is yet to take root.

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