‘Memogate’: Pakistan’s evolving politics

As state institutions clash in Pakistan, they also appear to be evolving beyond historical precedents.

Pakistan supreme court building
Tensions are high between the military and the civilian government, but a coup appears to be unlikely [EPA]

Everything is coming to a head for the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). It is faced with a judiciary that has seemingly lost patience with its government, a vocal opposition clamouring for early parliamentary elections, a growing civilian-military divide, and a relationship with Washington that blows more cold than hot.

Even so, analysts believe there is an interesting, and not entirely negative, shift at play within Pakistan’s complex political dynamics.

In the latest wave of crises, all intersecting in the past week, Pakistan’s state institutions appear to be evolving in their responses to challenges.

For example, the Supreme Court has taken on an independent, activist role and the army has assumed a more withdrawn position. The political opposition has put forth vocal, at times vitriolic, criticism that targets the ruling party, but simultaneously leaves no room for an undemocratic transition, such as the military coup d’etats seen in the past.

The situation is complex, but no matter which way you slice the data, it looks bad for the PPP.

Legal challenges

The Supreme Court is taking on the government on two fronts, both of which could see Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s legitimacy as the leader of the parliament challenged.

The first challenge is a case before the court regarding the recent “Memogate” scandal.

It is alleged that a secret memorandum was written by Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, in which the US was asked for its aid in averting a possible military coup in the aftermath of the US raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011.

In the purported memo, the Pakistani government allegedly agreed to re-tool its national security establishment in line with US policy, in exchange for US support.

The second case before the Supreme Court centres on the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). Passed in 2007, the NRO allowed a blanket amnesty on corruption cases for leaders of the PPP, including Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and the party’s chairperson at the time, who was killed in a suicide attack later that year.

The Supreme Court later struck down the NRO as being unconstitutional, but its rulings were never widely implemented, particularly when it came to pursuing legal cases against Asif Zardari, the PPP’s co-chairperson – and now president of Pakistan – along with other senior officials.

On January 10, a partial bench of the Supreme Court issued a warning to the government over its continuing failure to implement the NRO decision. It outlined six possible options, to be finally decided by a full bench of the court at a hearing on January 16.

Included in those options was the option of ruling the prime minister as “not … an ‘honest’ person”  and as such ineligible to hold his seat in parliament.

Al Jazeera’s Inside Story: Is Pakistan facing a military coup?

Shots across the bow

Meanwhile, the civilian government’s tense relationship with the military, Pakistan’s most powerful arm of state, continues.

Gilani has fired several shots across the bows of “the establishment”, a term used in Pakistan to indicate the army and its associated intelligence agencies. He has criticised the director-general of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the army’s chief of staff for acting “unconstitutionally” when filing their testimonies before the high court in the “Memogate” hearings. 

He followed that up by firing his defence secretary, a retired lieutenant general considered close to the military, for “gross misconduct and illegal action” related to the same case.

That criticism of the ISI chief, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and the army’s General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani prompted the military to issue a statement warning of “very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country”.

If this were 15 years ago, that sort of statement, most agree, would likely be followed by Kayani dutifully making a solemn statement against the now-traditional faded blue wallpaper on state television in the wee hours of the morning – a portrait of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah staring resolutely over his right shoulder – as he speaks of stepping in “with great reluctance” and “for the national interest” (both phrases used by multiple former Pakistani army chiefs when launching interventions in Pakistan’s chequered democratic past).

So, given that the army’s 111 Brigade isn’t now breaking down the prime minister’s front door, what has changed?

“We are now at a point where for multiple reasons … primarily internal, the army has been reluctant to [act overtly and unilaterally]. It realises the limits and limitations of its power … there is this desire to actually defuse [the situation],” said Ejaz Haider, a military and political analyst.

Haider points to the very public failures the military has faced in the cases of the unilateral US raid that killed Bin Laden and an attack by Taliban-aligned fighters on a Pakistani navy base in Karachi, as reasons why the army has been hesitant to step in.

He also mentioned the fact it now faces a “heavy reliance on public buy-in” to continue to conduct operations against internal security threats.

“Now, of course, the military remains a primary player. But, [far] from being the predominant power, it is now down to what I would describe as ‘first among equals’,” he told Al Jazeera.

Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based analyst, agreed.

“The domestic situation in Pakistan has become unmanageable, and the country is increasingly ungovernable. The economy is in a shambles, therefore, the army finds it difficult to cope with that kind of problem,” he told Al Jazeera – adding that the military would find it difficult to attract international financial assistance without “civilian faces” in charge.

“It is [also] engaged in counterterrorism, and it needs civilian cover for that. The moment it assumes power, it loses that civilian cover.”

Court’s evolving role

With the military not in a position to act overtly, the Supreme Court’s role becomes even more crucial.

Over the past five years, the country’s highest court, under Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has exercised its powers of original jurisdiction to challenge such disparate issues as rising petrol prices and government appointments. 

Lawyers practicing in the Supreme Court told Al Jazeera that the court has also loosened the criteria used to judge whether petitions fall under “question[s] of public importance” or relate to individual’s fundamental rights as guaranteed under the Pakistani constitution,

(In fact, the “Memogate” petition currently being heard by the court was deemed admissible based on possible violations of Articles 9, 14 and 19A of the Pakistani constitution, which guarantee citizens the rights of security, “dignity” and access to information of public importance.)

The newly invigorated role of the Supreme Court has raised both criticism and praise. Supporters say the court is stepping in to address systemic problems with governance and corruption. Opponents, however, take a different view.

“The judiciary is politicised,” said Rizvi. “Unfortunately, the Supreme Court is now more media-oriented, it looks for sound-bites [to be aired on] television channels. The Supreme Court should not [make allegations of the dishonesty of the prime minister] unless there is evidence. And if there is evidence, then convict him.”

It appears to some observers, such as Rizvi and Haider, that the same court that made a name for itself by taking on the powerful military and its intelligence institutions under former president Pervez Musharraf is now seemingly aligned with the military against the parliament – though both critics agreed the re-alignment was not necessarily indicative of complicity with the generals.

“You could say that both [the judiciary and the military] are non-elected institutions. They are bringing pressure on elected institutions, setting up a situation where you have the parliament and the elected government versus the non-elected judiciary and military,” said Rizvi.

Haider said the military would seek to exploit any fissures it could, particularly those that were legal or constitutional, when it comes to pressuring the elected government – but that it would stop short of any overt action.

In his analysis, the most likely outcome of the current impasse is that the government would attempt to find a compromise that “does not satisfy [the ruling party, the opposition, the military or the judiciary] fully”.

Those meetings appear to already be taking place, with Kayani meeting Zardari and Gilani on Saturday, and conciliatory statements emanating from the opposition.

New responses

In a sense, then, there is an evolution at play here: of institutions developing new responses to problems they have addressed previously in a manner more oriented towards a power structure where the country defaults to military rule.

For the court, in particular, this would indicate a question of how far it extends its remit, and whether it steps back from its perceived position as a protector of the public interest in order to maintain political stability. This is a point the court itself acknowledges in its short order on the NRO case.

“We are not only looking at how the institutions are trying to define and redefine their own spaces, but also in terms of the kind of debates and discussions we are having in this country. [We are looking] at the complexity of these issues. None of this is linear, because there are so many variables, and that’s what makes it so interesting,” said Haider.

On Monday, the national assembly convenes once more to debate a motion reposing confidence in the current government.

The political opposition, the numbers suggest, does not have enough votes for any no-confidence motion to pass, although its leaders continue to press for early elections.

Analysts say any compromise could involve polls earlier than March 2013 (when they are scheduled), as long as the PPP is allowed to hold the Senate elections as scheduled on March 2 this year. Through the indirect vote, the PPP is projected to win an unprecedented number of seats in the upper house.

A full bench of the Supreme Court will also meet on Monday to deliberate over what action, if any, the court is willing to sanction against the prime minister and his government over the NRO case.

As the heat increases in the crucible of Pakistani politics, the current democratically elected government would appear, for the moment at least, to be lurching onwards.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera