It still might
Some political leaders and parties have been trying to dislodge the federal government from its earliest days. Many deadlines were given by them for its removal which proved nothing more than false alarms. Now, it faces new pressures for ouster.
The federal government is not expected to collapse or knocked out by the Supreme Court or the military in the next two-three months, although uncertainty and confusion about its future will continue to prevail. The political situation will have to be reviewed then for making prediction for the period thereafter.
The federal government’s poor performance in governance and socio-economic development is undeniable. Some of its problems like the memo issue or political (mis)handling of the president’s illness reflect serious management problems with the federal government and the PPP. However, the circumstantial factors and the political and military dynamics can keep it floating, although it will drift from crisis to crisis.
The over-activism of the opposition, especially the PML(N), can keep the federal government under pressure but their twin agenda of puling-down the government and knocking-out President Asif Ali Zardari against the backdrop of the memo issue and the president’s illness is not likely to be realized soon.
The constitutional path to remove the federal government and the president is through the parliament. Alternatively, this objective can be achieved by sustained street agitation that completely paralyses the government. These options are not readily available to the PML(N) mainly because of three reasons.
First, the time for stopping the Senate elections (half of the Senate members will be elected in early March 2012) is running out. The PML(N) will have to move quickly to cause the collapse of the federal government so that the Senate elections are not held with the current party position in the national and provincial assemblies that gives a clear advantage to the PPP and its allies. Second, the PML(N) is virtually isolated in the political domain as it does not have the support of any political party. Other parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) are opposed to the PPP but these parties are equally critical of the PML(N). The JUI(F) has an ambiguous disposition towards the PPP but it also stays away from the PML(N). This isolation has made it impossible for the PML(N) to remove the government through a vote-of-no-confidence in the National Assembly. Similarly, it cannot alone launch a sustained nationwide agitation against the federal government. Third, the PML(N) cannot be oblivious to the the rise of Imran Khan of the PTI because he has demonstrated his support in the areas of the Punjab that are regarded as the stronghold of the PML(N). It has to counter this pressure.
The PML(N) does not have enough votes in the parliament to oust the federal government and President Zardari. Therefore, it has lost interest in the parliament. It has taken its fight with the government on the memo issue to the Supreme Court, hoping the court proceedings will build enough pressure on the government to cause its collapse or the Supreme Court may reprimand the federal government or the president, making it difficult for them to stay on.
Some PML(N) and other opposition circles are hoping that the divergence between the federal government and the army/ISI on the memo issue would turn into such a breach that the federal government would collapse under pressure from the military.
Traditionally, the military has three options against the civilian government in Pakistan: overthrow of the civilian government and assumption of power; change of civilian government with another set of civilian leaders; and pursuing its professional goals and corporate interests from the sidelines, influencing policies and asserting its role quietly but decisively.
The direct assumption of power is not a practical option for the military. It increases its problems and diverts it from its current security priority of fighting religious extremism and terrorism and securing Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan and India.
The army needs a civilian elected government more than ever before so that the latter owns its counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations and defends them at the international level. The military cannot alone fight terrorism, secure borders and mobilise support at the international level while at the same time ruling the country. The military will have serious problems in winning support for its direct assumption of power. It will have problems in securing international, especially American, financial support and military equipment.
In the domestic context, the PML(N) can support military’s political activism if it facilitates the achievement of the PML(N) twin agenda of removal of the federal government and President Zardari. The PML(N) and other opposition parties will oppose military rule if the military wants to hold on to power for an indefinite period or installs a government of technocrats for two or three years for rebuilding the economy and ensuring good governance. Further, after having lost power to the military, the PPP and its allies would project them as the martyr of democracy and they would, like other opposition parties, challenge military rule. Another problem is that Pakistan’s economic and societal problems have become so complex that no government can address them quickly. The military will get discredited on these counts like a civilian government. Its performance cannot be better than the civilian government.
The direct assumption of power and military rule is going to be more problematic in Pakistan than ever before. The Supreme Court is no longer expected to endorse such an act. Even if the military overcomes the challenge of the Supreme Court by abolishing its role under martial law, it faces another difficulty. When societal formations and voluntary social and political groups proliferate the military always finds it difficult to manage civilian affairs. The expansion of independent media and communication technology is also a deterrent for the army to expand its direct role.
The rational approach suggests that direct assumption of power by the military or removal of the civilian government under military pressure cannot be on the agenda of the military. It can function effectively from the sidelines.
Similarly, if some opposition leaders are expecting the Supreme Court to remove the elected government and the elected president they will be disappointed. This will amount to crossing the limits of the constitution which assigns the power of changing the federal government and the president to the parliament only.
Despite the poor performance of the federal government and periodic strains in civil-military relations, the elected-civilian is expected to muddle through the present crisis.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.