By: Aqil Shah
As the uproar in Pakistan this week shows, meddling in politics is a specialty of both the country’s judiciary and its military. There is a silver lining though. Pakistan’s two major parties — long enemies — have worked together this time to fend off the threat.
This month, Pakistan’s government is fending off a needless political crisis. On 14 January, Allama Tahir ul Qadri, a pro-military cleric turned revolutionary who once claimed to have a direct line to the Prophet Mohammad, marched into the capital with tens of thousands of supporters. He has since threatened to use whatever means necessary to implement his demands, which include the removal of the “corrupt” Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led government, the disbandment of the current parliament, and the implementation of constitutional clauses that lay down strict financial, religious, and moral qualifications for election to parliament. The move follows on an unusual media blitz last month, during which Qadri took to the streets and airwaves to save the state by demanding the creation of a clean technocratic government backed by the army and the judiciary.
The timing couldn’t be worse. In 2013, Pakistan is expected to undertake its first transition of power from one elected civilian government that has completed its tenure to another. When the current government came to office in 2008, reaching that milestone had seemed unimaginably difficult. All of Pakistan’s previous transitions to democracy had been cut short by military takeovers. As the date for the handover neared, many Pakistanis had started to hope to avoid that scenario this time. As it turns out, though, even cautious optimism might have been too much. It appears that Pakistan’s powerful military, aided by an aggressive Supreme Court, might well have just put a spanner in the works.
Some in the Pakistani media maintain that the United States is complicit in this week’s chain of events, although there is no evidence that it is directly involved. Meanwhile, many writers, including the prominent rights activist Asma Jehangir, and opposition politicians say that the timing of Qadri’s political surge, just a few months ahead of parliamentary elections, has Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence written all over it. According to Jehangir, “the [military] establishment is the director of Qadri’s film. People of Pakistan have already watched such films in the past.” In this view, Qadri, a resident of Canada, was imported to sow instability as a prelude a military attempt to establish a guided democracy, or at least, influence the composition and duration of the next caretaker administration. The judiciary, meanwhile, is playing helpmeet.
There is, as yet, no smoking gun linking Qadri to the Pakistani military or judiciary. Still, it cannot be a coincidence that Qadri has directed his indignation at the civilian government, while lauding the judiciary and the military as the only two institutions “performing their duties to fulfill the needs of the people,” which, he says, are hamstrung by the government’s corruption and inefficiency.
Certainly, military meddling would not be out of the ordinary: in the past, the military has intervened on account of tensions before or after elections. For example, in 1977, the military used unrest over an allegedly “stolen” election to overthrow the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Since 2008, when Pakistan made a formal transition to civilian government after a decade of General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule, the generals have tried to protect their institutional interests from behind the scenes, preferring to at least maintain the appearance of supporting democracy.
For example, although the head of the army, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has repeatedly stressed the military’s respect for constitutional boundaries, he has had little qualms in crossing them. Last year, he defied the government by urging the Supreme Court to investigate a memo allegedly written by Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States at the time, seeking U.S. intervention to fend off a coup. When Yousaf Raza Gillani, who was prime minister, accused the army of acting as “a state within a state,” the generals warned the government of “grave consequences” and swiftly replaced the commander of the 111 brigade — the one that has typically conducted coups — hinting that a takeover might be in the works.
Interference in politics is a specialty of the judicial branch, too. As I wrote in July 2012, the Supreme Court, which is led by Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, is not afraid to go public with its targeting of the PPP government. The month before, the court had ousted Gillani for contempt of court. On Monday, just as Qadri was threatening to forcibly overthrow the government, Chaudhry helped him along by ordering the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf for taking bribes in 2010 when he was minister for water and power. It is not entirely clear whether the chief justice is acting out of personal enmity toward President Asif Ali Zardari or doing the bidding of the military.