20 January 2012
Farzana Shaikh

Dr Farzana Shaikh

Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


Even by the standards of Pakistan, which is no stranger to crises, the latest drama engulfing the country has rarely been surpassed either in the depth of its complexity or in the surreal nature of its performance. 

The government faces two distinct legal challenges that could cut short its tenure. Prime Minister Gilani currently stands charged with contempt of court and the threat of dismissal by the Supreme Court. This centres on the government's alleged defiance of a 2009 Supreme Court ruling ordering it to re-open corruption cases against President Zardari. Gilani has been given until February 1 to explain his actions. 

The second legal challenge could lead to the impeachment of President Zardari and charges of treason brought against senior government officials. It centres on a secret memo allegedly drafted by close aides of the President appealing to the United States to help stave off a military coup following the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in return for re-organizing the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Hearings continue and no date has yet been set for a ruling. 

'Three-cornered Struggle'

The political upheaval this has created has a ring of familiarity about it, involving the 'clash' of elected officials and army generals. But it is also ostensibly new. What is on show is a clumsily staged act that brings into play the government, the army, and for the first time in full public view, the Supreme Court. That means the cast is wider and more diverse. 

Nevertheless, attention is most keenly focussed on the leaders of the ruling Pakistan People's Party - President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Reza Gilani - the army chief, General Ashfaque Kiyani, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Choudhry. 

The big question is whether this three-cornered struggle is merely an illusion designed to mask a classic power struggle between Pakistan’s elected representatives and the country's army. This reflects concern that far from acting as an independent third player, the Supreme Court may be serving as an instrument of the army to help it mount a 'constitutional coup' and oust an elected government from office.


Such a 'constitutional coup' is dictated less by the supposed professionalism of the army high command than by the constraint of present circumstances in Pakistan. This includes widespread and intense public hostility to America, which has prompted the army to consider letting civilians (albeit preferably of its own choosing) to bear formal responsibility for Pakistan's alliance with the US while insisting on its prerogative to control foreign and defence policy.

The army is also aware that there is no appetite yet among the public or opposition parties in Pakistan for another spell of military rule despite widespread disenchantment with the government. However, given Pakistan's history, to rule out a military coup would be rash. 


Meanwhile, there are fears that a government preoccupied with fighting for its political survival is losing precious time to repair Pakistan's frayed relationship with the US and re-build trust with its regional neighbours. Many worry that failure to do so could strip Pakistan of the influence it may once have expected to enjoy by working in partnership with the US and its allies to shape political reconciliation in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's boycott of the Bonn Conference in December in protest against a NATO attack on a Pakistani checkpoint last November and its decision not to welcome US special envoy, Marc Grossman, could be counter-productive. For they threaten not only to compound Pakistan's international isolation but to give Pakistan's rivals, notably India (who welcomed Grossman), precisely the kind of leverage over regional affairs that Pakistan has long sought to contain. 

Pakistan's isolation could also spell the ruin of its broken economy by denying it the help it so badly needs from international donors. With estimates of growth in 2010-2011 slashed from 4.5% to 2.4% after devastating floods and with deadly insurgencies still convulsing north-western regions and Baluchistan, the outlook is grim. The absence of economic reform has brought unprecedented levels of inflation and joblessness, crippling energy shortages, and the virtual disintegration of the national railways and airlines.

At Risk

It is still too early to tell whether the current crisis in Pakistan represents anything more than symptoms of the country's chronically dysfunctional civil-military relations or whether it marks the onset of a steep learning curve in the country's unsteady transition to democracy. 

Either way what is clear is that the politics of brinkmanship currently on display have put Pakistan at grave risk of jeopardising its standing as a mature state with the potential to contribute meaningfully to regional and global stability.