Rosheen Kabraji
(Former Chatham House Expert)
Senior Research Fellow, Asia Programme

With a general election imminent, the odds of Pakistan's current government serving a full-term and then peacefully transferring power to a successor have lengthened significantly. 

The move by Pakistan's Supreme Court to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, on allegations of corruption, comes just six months after the Supreme Court forced his predecessor’s resignation. 

While the ruling Pakistan People’s Party may well find a replacement for Ashraf, the politics is more complicated. In recent weeks Tahir-ul-Qadri, leader of the Minhaj ul Quran organization, has returned to Pakistan campaigning on a platform of clean government, electoral reform, 'true democracy', and a vow to clean-up national politics. This week, a significant number marched on Islamabad in support of him. The link between the arrest warrant of the prime minister and the march by Tahir-ul-Qadri is not seen as a coincidence.

The most widespread theory behind Mr Qadri's return to Pakistan is that it was prompted by the military. The argument runs thus: the military does not want the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML (N), to gain a significant majority because they believe its leader, Nawaz Sharif, still bears a grudge towards them for ousting him in 1999. The military had supported Imran Khan, whose support base in Punjab could erode the PML (N)’s support. However, the military has recently downgraded its assessment of the impact of Imran Khan following his political rallies which failed to produce the desired power shifts. This all could have encouraged Mr Qadri to return, thus destabilizing the political scene and potentially creating a situation in which elections are delayed. Constitutionally, the government hands power to a caretaker government to oversee elections. The military, which has had to take a step back from domestic politics in recent years (though not foreign policy), would be able to exert much greater influence over a caretaker government than either a PPP or a PML (N) government. 

Pressure on the government

Mr Qadri’s supporters are now staging a sit-in calling for the dissolution of parliament. His organization, Minhaj ul Quran, has deep ties in Pakistan and his promise of reform appeals to beleaguered citizens and in particular the lower middle class. There is growing frustration with the government’s inability to stem the spate of violence across the country and bring to justice the perpetrators of attacks on Pakistan’s minorities. These fears are exacerbated by the flailing economy and a tidal wave of corruption allegations. 

Allegations of corruption against Prime Minister Ashraf are not new. He was power minister in 2008 at a time when the government was attempting to resolve Pakistan’s energy shortages through rental power projects. Rumours that large kick-backs were involved were widespread given the nature of the contracts with the power companies involved, and the relative inefficiency of rental power projects compared with other forms of power generation. In 2012, the Supreme Court ordered the National Accountability Bureau to investigate all government personnel who were involved in the setting up of rental power projects, the result of which has led to the call for the Prime Minister’s arrest. 

Going forward: Shaky grounds

Conflict in Pakistan is multi-layered. The death of more than 100 people, most of them Shia, in bomb attacks in Quetta highlights on-going Sunni-Shia conflict. Levels of violence in Karachi also rose through 2012; there the ethnic balance has been affected in part because of migration of Pashtuns from the tribal areas. These factors have combined to create a febrile atmosphere. Constant intervention by Pakistan’s military in politics has weakened civilian institutions and government since the country’s inception. The longer civilian governments, however imperfect, are able to remain in power, the stronger they will become. But at a time when Pakistan needs unity among its political actors to drive forward its nascent democracy, it seems that it is becoming even more fractious and divisive.

This political uncertainty is of itself concerning, and furthermore undermines Pakistan’s economic prospects. The country is negotiating yet another IMF bail-out, and its currency and stock-market are weakening. This economic weakness, in turn, feeds back into political instability. Through 2012, one bright spot was a gradual rapprochement with India; but even here, progress has stalled since a recent clash on the Line of Control which divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. 

What is essentially a battle for power among different elements of Pakistan’s elite – its political class and the judiciary, with the military in the background – is undermining stability within the country. A potential delay in elections in the same year as a change in the leadership of the army is expected, lays the seeds for another turbulent year for Pakistan. 

Unless Pakistan's elite can start acting collegiately rather than tearing itself apart, the hopes for stability in the country at large are slim. But for now the signs are that the power-jockeying will continue.

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