The third round of the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue is being held this week in Washington, D.C., in the backdrop of domestic political crises, economic woes, terrorist attacks and rumors about an ever-impending coup in Pakistan. In this context President Obama's unannounced meeting with the Pakistani delegation emphasizing American support for the present civilian government and democracy might be a game-changer.
Rumors have been rife in Islamabad that the present government is so weak, chaotic and ineffective that the military will take over. Such stories have been around for the last two years. Pakistan's establishment clearly does not like President Asif Ali Zardari, and the elected government is particularly gaffe prone, which feeds the rumor mill, already churning thanks to an essentially anti-Zardari media. The frequency of coup scares is matched only by explanations of why a coup is unlikely. It seems that the Pakistani military and its civilian supporters allow the rumors to flourish in order to put pressure on an iron-willed and stubborn Zardari, while the objective conditions prevent a coup -- for now.
Given Pakistan's history, a military coup is the constant fear of every civilian regime. Ever since Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) took office two years ago, fears of military takeover have surfaced each time the country has faced a crisis situation -- especially one that involves civil-military disagreement. This happened in 2008 when the still-new civilian administration tried to wrest control of the Inter-Services Intelligence from the army. The tussle with the judiciary over the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry in March 2009 led to reports of potential government collapse. The buzz of a potential coup was also there during the intense and fractious debates and uproar in the National Assembly over the Kerry-Lugar bill of 2009, but little materialized.
There's no doubt that the civilian government is weak -- every civilian government in Pakistan over the last 63 years has been, not least because the military-technocratic establishment has rarely allowed these governments to build themselves or to push the envelope on key policies. But it is also true that the PPP-led government has not been able to get its act together. The administration shows its inexperience in governance.
The present civilian government resembles some of the weak coalition governments in India during the 1990s, which were led by politicians with limited governance experience. The Zardari government also lacks a serious communication strategy. While it is constantly being spun against, it is rarely able to put forth its own views. The Pakistani media often buys into the military's whisper campaigns while the political parties hostile to the PPP have much stronger media management. Add to that Zardari's personal battles with some leading media figures, and his ability to get away with anything without a media flare up is next to none.
We do, however, need to bear a few things in mind. President Zardari derives strength from the fact that he has the support of his party (as co-chairman of the PPP), and the more he is threatened -- by the media or by rivals -- the stronger he becomes within the party, which views itself as a party of martyrs. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is a Zardari loyalist. Even though he is de facto ruler (after implementation of the 18th Amendment to Pakistan's constitution took away executive authority from the office of president), there is little chance that he will drop his support for Zardari, as Mr. Gilani has very little support independent of the president.
Circumstances are such that there is little likelihood of a direct military takeover -- a "hard" coup -- for the time being. And General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Chief of Army Staff, is not the kind of general who would instigate a coup. The army is still smarting from the impact of the Musharraf era, and all rungs of the army are keenly aware of the growing resentment among the people about the army's privileges. As of now the army would prefer to have a weak and ineffective civilian government in power that takes all the blame with the army as puppet-master holding all the strings.
Even former army chief and dictator Pervez Musharraf, in a recent interview, spoke out against coups. According to Musharraf, while it is customary in Pakistan during times of "turmoil" to "look to the army," he believes that "the times of military coups in Pakistan are over. The latest political developments have shown that the Supreme Court has set a bar on itself not to validate a military takeover." In earlier times, whether under Ayub or Zia, the Supreme Court normally justified coups under the doctrine of necessity.
General Kayani is also interested in rebuilding and professionalizing Pakistan's army. Over the last three years Kayani has brought about quiet changes within his organization. He has replaced the majority of Corps Commanders who had been appointed by his predecessor, General Musharraf, with his own men. Kayani's bête noire, Gen. Tariq Majeed, Chief of Joint Staff, was recently retired and replaced with a general more amenable to Kayani.
Cleaning up the intelligence services has also taken place too slowly over the last two years. Kayani now fully controls intelligence operations, and though the army did not allow the civilian government to wrest control of the intelligence services, ISI, Kayani has introduced changes himself. The political wings of both the ISI and the military intelligence, MI, have been closed. General Pasha, head of ISI, also appears to have played a key role in these developments.
The second largest party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is mainly a Punjab-based party with very little support in the other three provinces in the country. While Nawaz Sharif has a higher popularity rating than Zardari, there is a low probability of the army replacing Zardari with Sharif. After all, it was Sharif who had tried to curb the power of the army, which instigated the 1999 coup by Pervez Musharraf. A popular Sharif with a Punjabi power base would threaten the military's domination of Pakistani decision-making far more than an unpopular Zardari.
Rumors have also focused on the possibility of a "soft" coup through the judiciary. President Zardari and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court do not see eye to eye, and the latter's attempts to revive the Swiss cases and deprive the president of constitutional immunity are seen as reflecting Justice Chaudhry's animosity towards Zardari. While there is very little chance of Zardari losing his immunity, he appears to have planned for that possibility. If forced to resign, the constitution provides that he be replaced by the Chairman of the Senate, Farooq Naek. A Zardari loyalist, Naek served as the president's personal lawyer when Zardari faced criminal charges from 1997 to 2007.
The final possibility often floated is for Chaudhry and Zardari to both step down. However, though this action would likely bring Chaudhry's career to an end, and it would only boost Zardari's image and popularity as a martyr both amongst his party and the public.
Terrorism continues to threaten Pakistan, the economy is still weak and the growth rate is currently at 2.5 to 3 percent, barely equal to population growth. The floods that hit Pakistan last month have devastated one-fifth of its landmass, displaced around 20 million and killed more than 1,600 people. Never in Pakistan's history has the army ever taken over in a situation like this. The military would much rather let the civilian government take the rap for problems that defy solution instead of taking over power and letting the civilians become martyrs.
In addition to internal factors, all political players in Pakistan have looked to see what the American government's attitude would be towards a soft or hard coup in Pakistan. The main reason for this is that America has been Pakistan's major benefactor -- mainly in economic and military arenas -- since 1954. While in earlier times the American administrations have been seen as more interested in stability than democracy, the current administration has made it clear in the last two years that it values democracy and civilian supremacy in Pakistan. President Obama decision to drop by unannounced to the Roosevelt Room where the Pakistani delegation was in talks with its American counterparts reflects this policy. Addressing a group that included Foreign Minister S.M. Qureshi as well as army chief Ashfaq Kayani, President Obama stated his government's commitment and support to Pakistani democracy. Further, the President also extended an invitation for President Zardari to visit Washington and announced his own trip to Pakistan in 2011.
For now it seems that the domestic situation in Pakistan is going to continue as before -- a weak civilian government attempting to deal with serious threats amid widespread disaffection. The government is going to keep limping along, trying to restore its presence in flood-affected areas, rebuild the economy and face the daily challenges in the National Assembly, all the while fighting extremists. As of now, Pakistan has few alternatives.
Aparna Pande, PhD, is a Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute.