Gilani vs. the Military: Is a Coup d'Etat in the Works in Pakistan?

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Rob Griffith / AP

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's unpopular coalition government has been attacked on multiple fronts by a strident opposition, a hostile judiciary and a powerful military

In Pakistan, civilian governments never exit gracefully. They have all been given a mighty heave amid crisis. Sometimes Prime Ministers have been trampled by direct military coups. More often, they were shunted aside by subtler means. Charges of corruption often figure prominently too, giving an otherwise ugly transfer of power a gloss of legitimacy. It becomes difficult to champion democracy when its chief beneficiaries are accused of carving private fortunes out of a poor country's coffers.

That is the kind of fate that many in Pakistan are increasingly foreseeing for Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. For the past several weeks, his weak and unpopular coalition government has been increasingly harried on multiple fronts by a strident opposition, a hostile judiciary and a powerful military. But in a slight departure from the usual script, Gilani has decided to dig in his heels and fight back. In a dark warning to the country's politicians, Gilani warned last week that their choice is between "democracy and dictatorship."

The tension has not been helped by President Asif Ali Zardari's two recent visits to Dubai, which have sparked rumors of an impending coup. But there is little prospect of Pakistan's generals seizing direct control. As Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani knows, power can still be exercised from behind a thin veil. At the moment, the army already controls national security, foreign policy and even elements of the economy. It will resist any temptation to resort to the crude methods recently displayed by their Egyptian counterparts.

The more likely outcome is a Supreme Court ruling. The top judges have been looking into an American businessman's claims that the civilian government sent an unsigned memo calling on the U.S. military to intervene to avert a coup in Pakistan in the days after the killing of Osama bin Laden. The news of the memo had angered Pakistan's generals. In an unprecedented move, General Kayani and his intelligence chief, Lieut. General Ahmed Shuja Pasha of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, both submitted affidavits to the Supreme Court saying that they believe Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S, Husain Haqqani, was responsible for the memo. Gilani shot back that the two generals acted "illegally" and "unconstitutionally" by submitting their affidavits. He had already spoken publicly of the hazards of a "state within a state," a clear hint at the army's invisible power, and even asked aloud how bin Laden ended up living in Pakistan.

Then came a swift trade of blows. Haqqani has already been forced to resign and faces an investigation but denies orchestrating the memo. He could face charges of "treason" or "gross misconduct." Meanwhile, the army publicly chastised Gilani for his remarks and warned of "potentially grievous consequences for the country." Gilani responded by sacking the Defense Ministry's top bureaucrat, a retired three-star general, replacing him with a trusted aide. The army was not amused, discreetly briefing the press that it would refuse to work with the new Defense Secretary. The army also announced that there was a new commander of the 111th Brigade in Rawalpindi — which would purportedly lead the speculated coup — and leaked rumors that it had already staged a rehearsal.

As Gilani tussles with the generals, the Supreme Court has reheated old corruption charges. The judges have ruled that Gilani and his government have acted "dishonestly" by not asking the Swiss government to reopen graft cases against President Zardari. For the past two years, the government has stubbornly refused to cooperate with what it sees as a blatantly partisan court. Now, Gilani could be forced to quit, says a senior politician. "The Supreme Court might knock the Prime Minister out," the politician said, declining to be named.

Gilani's government also finds itself increasingly isolated. Given the dire state of relations between the two countries, Washington is reduced to the role of spectator, only able to voice lukewarm support for "constitutional process." Over the past year, efforts to shore up the civilian government have foundered as the relationship has once again reverted to one determined by mutual security needs.

The political opposition, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now scents an opportunity. Once wary of Pakistan's generals, it has decided to lock arms with them and push the Supreme Court to investigate claims that Haqqani and others may have been involved in writing the "treasonous" memo. Fast losing ground to cricket legend turned politician Imran Khan, Sharif's party is intent on halting its popular slide by seizing the initiative. Timing is also crucial. If Sharif fails to oust Gilani's coalition government by March, the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party is poised to win the highest number of seats in the forthcoming Senate elections, making it difficult for any successor to legislate effectively.

Gilani's government is desperately hoping to reach March, triumph at the Senate elections and announce a general election once the summer's searing heat fades. Before then, however, the formidable opponents arrayed against it will be determined that this government meets its end as suddenly and as ignominiously as possible.