There are fears that the army is thinking of moving against the civilian government. That would be a disaster
IN MOST countries the sight of 50,000 devout Sufis riding into the capital in brightly coloured buses and lorries would not raise the spectre of military intervention. But so convoluted are Pakistan’s politics that the march led by Tahir ul Qadri is read by many as an indication that the army is planning another intervention in government (see article). If that happens, it will be a catastrophe for the country.
Mr Qadri, a cleric who served briefly as a politician under the latest military dictator, has recently returned from Canada and says he wants a “revolution” against the civilian government. He has emerged from nowhere, yet organised a march which arrived in Islamabad on January 14th—no mean feat, since marches are usually banned in the city—and which was broadcast non-stop on television. Pakistan’s many conspiracy theorists, encouraged by the country’s many conspiracies, suspect that he may be the army’s latest favourite to replace the politicians with whom the soldiers have lost patience.
Mr Qadri’s rise is not the only reason Pakistanis have to worry about the soldiers. On January 15th the Supreme Court suddenly ordered the arrest of the prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, over a long-running bribery scandal. The court, along with the army, has long been hostile to the government. There is talk in Pakistan of a “Bangladesh option”, a reference to a quiet coup in that country, engineered by the army in January 2007 and legitimised by the judiciary, leading to a two-year suspension of democracy in favour of unelected technocrats.
If the army were to try to get rid of the civilian government, now would be the time, for two reasons. An election is due this year, and a new administration with a decent mandate would be harder to bin than the tarnished Pakistan Peoples Party government of President Asif Ali Zardari. And this year, too, the chief of army staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, is due to step down. His term in office has already been extended; but he may wish to defer his retirement a little longer.
A recent Pew survey found that Pakistanis are the least enthusiastic about democracy among six Muslim countries polled. That is hardly surprising. After nearly five years of civilian rule, the country is in a desperate state. Terrorist bombings are horribly frequent. The latest, in Balochistan, killed 86 people (see article). The country’s politicians are venal, self-interested and chaotic. Its growth is feeble, its debt unsustainable and its tax revenues have collapsed.
Yet rather than being a solution to Pakistan’s problems, the army is a large part of the reason for them. Its frequent interventions contribute to corruption: politicians reckon they need to make money quickly. Its dominance distorts spending priorities: the government spends around ten times as much on defence as on education. And it undermines the country’s security: the threat of war with India provides a justification for army rule, which is why Pakistanis fear the recent flare-up on the border with India in which five soldiers died.
This could be its big chance
Pakistan could be on the verge of a breakthrough. If the election happens and if it is won by a coalition led by Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, then it will be the first time that an elected leader has served a full term and handed power to a successor. Such a peaceful transition would be a milestone in Pakistan’s journey towards democracy. It might even help the country get a decent government. It is to be hoped that Pakistan’s soldiers are not thinking of derailing the process. America, which in the past has shown a regrettable ambivalence towards military rule in the country, must make it clear that if they do they will get no support from Pakistan’s friends.