Pakistan’s parliament and the country’s army commanders will meet separately today as civilian and military leaders bid to bolster support amid their sharpest power struggle since the end of army rule in 2008.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani clashed yesterday over a Supreme Court probe into a purported government memo seeking U.S. help to prevent a possible military coup. Gilani may also face sanction from the court for his government’s failure to pursue corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari and other officials.
“The government will try to prove that it still commands a majority in parliament and any attempt by the judiciary to disqualify it will not be tolerated,” said Rashid Khan, a professor of international relations at the University of Sargodha in central Pakistan. Gilani “may try to cool the situation by saying he doesn’t plan to sack the army chief.”
Political upheaval in the nuclear-armed nation threatens to complicate U.S. plans to rebuild strained relations and bolster regional security as it withdraws troops from neighboring Afghanistan. The turmoil also may hamper efforts to revive Pakistan’s economy, which grew 2.4 percent in the year ended June 30, one of the weakest expansions in a decade.
Gilani and his coalition partners in parliament will hold talks before a meeting of the National Assembly this evening, according to Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar. Separately, Kayani will gather his senior commanders, according to a military official who declined to be identified as he’s not authorized to speak to the media.
Zardari is traveling to Dubai, where he last month received medical treatment, on a previously scheduled trip, the Geo television channel reported today, citing sources that it didn’t name. The network didn’t give details.
As the confrontation with Gilani and Zardari has brewed, Kayani has said repeatedly that there will be no coup. “The army will continue to support democratic process in the country,” he said Dec. 23 in a speech to troops reported on the military press office’s website.
Analysts of Pakistan’s military, such as Talat Masood, a retired army lieutenant general, have said that Kayani is an officer unlikely to authorize any direct military takeover of power, because of the difficulties created for the armed forces by their eight years of rule under General Pervez Musharraf.
When Musharraf handed the military command to Kayani in late 2007, one of Kayani’s first acts was to order all officers serving in civilian administrative posts to quit those jobs and return to purely military functions.
“Kayani has never shown his intent to overthrow the elected government,” Khan said in a phone interview. “The country’s internal and external threats don’t make this environment conducive for military rule,” Khan said.
Polls by the Washington-based International Republican Institute showed that Musharraf’s declining popularity shrank public approval of the army, historically the most popular national institution, from 82 percent to 55 percent during the last year of military rule.
Gilani accused the army Jan. 9 of violating the constitution by sending statements on the memo to the top court directly, rather than through civilian officials. Gilani and Zardari dismiss claims by a Pakistani-American businessman that their ex-ambassador in Washington sought intervention against a feared power grab by an army angered at the raid deep into the country by the U.S. forces who killed Osama bin Laden.
“There can be no allegation more serious than what the honorable prime minister has leveled,” the military said yesterday in its response. “This has very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country,” it said in a statement.
Shortly after, Gilani’s government dismissed the Defense Ministry’s second-ranking official, retired Lieutenant General Naeem Khalid Lodhi, for misconduct it said had created “misunderstanding between the state institutions.” Gilani criticized Lodhi last month over a Defense Ministry statement to the Supreme Court saying that the ministry had no authority over the army’s main intelligence service.
The dispute over the memo has weakened Zardari, who along with Gilani has opposed the judicial inquiry. Military chief Kayani supports it.
“The government’s relations with the army are at their lowest ebb” since the restoration of civilian rule, said Ishtiaq Ahmed, a Pakistani professor of international relations at Oxford University in the U.K. “A period of relative stability in civilian-military relations is unraveling.”
Lodhi’s post traditionally is used by the army to maintain control over the defense ministry, and his removal will escalate government-military tension, Ahmed said in a phone interview. The military has seized power three times and ruled Pakistan for more than half of the state’s 64-year history.
Lodhi was replaced by cabinet secretary Nargis Sethi, a civilian considered close to Gilani.
“The government is moving on the presumption that the Supreme Court and the military have ganged up against it,” said Imtiaz Gul, chairman of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad research institute. Lodhi’s firing suggests that the government is “in a confrontational mode” against the army and court, Gul said by phone.
Pakistan’s internal turmoil “doesn’t change our commitment to trying to move the relationship forward,” U.S. Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters yesterday. “This is a matter for Pakistani officials and government leaders there, military and civilian, to work out.”
Pakistan’s Supreme Court Dec. 30 ordered a judicial commission to probe allegations by businessman Mansoor Ijaz that Zardari’s former envoy to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, sent a memo to senior Pentagon officials seeking help to prevent any coup after bin Laden’s killing.
Gilani’s government opposed that investigation, saying it already had announced a parliamentary inquiry.
Haqqani, who was dismissed over the memo issue, and the government deny involvement in its drafting or delivery.
Yesterday’s increase in tensions between the government and army came as Zardari and Gilani face the threat of Supreme Court punishment over corruption cases. The court said Jan. 10 Gilani had violated his oath of office by refusing to pursue existing graft charges against Zardari and thousands of other officials. A panel of judges will now consider whether to bring contempt of court charges against Gilani.
Gilani wants to use today’s special session of the National Assembly to garner support among lawmakers, said Muhammad Waseem, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
“The prime minister might seek a fresh vote of confidence” to bolster the government, Waseem said by phone. “But with the judiciary and the army on one side, the odds are” that the Zardari-Gilani administration won’t survive.
Pakistan’s main opposition party leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, blamed the government for the impasse with the army, while opposing a potential military takeover.
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