Pakistan's growing civilian-military showdown

Pakistan has avoided another military coup - so far - but tensions are rising between Prime Minister Gilani and the military establishment.

Khalid Tanveer/AP/File
In this April 2010 file photo, Pakistan's Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani (r.) and Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani watch a military exercise in the Cholistan Desert near Bahawalpur, Pakistan.

Pakistan's civilian government fired its Defense Secretary Wednesday in a rare show of defiance against the country's powerful Army, which had earlier publicly rebuked Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and ignited speculation the government may fall.

Retired Lt. Gen. Naeem Khalid Lodhi, a senior bureaucrat seen as close to the Army, was dismissed by the government for “gross misconduct and illegal action.” He was replaced by a bureaucrat close to the prime minister.

It’s not yet clear whether Pakistan’s powerful Army will be sufficiently moved to launch a coup and directly rule the country as it has done for approximately half of Pakistan’s 65 year history. But if Mr. Gilani's defiance pays off, that could indicate a boost for the country’s democratic institutions.

“The Prime Minister issued public statements denouncing the Army which is a risky business in Pakistan and that is why the Army is annoyed. If he survives the Army pressure, this becomes an unprecedented development,” says Hassan Askari-Rizwi, an analyst based in Lahore. The last civilian leader to engage in such open confrontation was former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was forced into exile following a bloodless coup led by Pervez Musharraf in 1999.

“The second unprecedented thing is the Army is also going public, denouncing the government, rather than removing the government as it has in the past,” adds Dr. Askari-Rizwi. The current stand-off relates to allegations that Pakistan’s government secretly asked for US help in reining in the Army and preventing a coup. The allegations are currently being probed both in parliament and by the country’s Supreme Court.

Prime Minister Gilani was reported by Pakistan’s state news agency to have termed written submissions by Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and Intelligence Chief Shuja Pasha to the Supreme Court, in connection with the case, as “illegal.”

That in turn led to a statement on the Army’s website today saying that Gilani’s remarks to the press could have “serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country.”

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Lodhi was fired for his part in forwarding the submissions to the court. Gilani’s fighting words help shed the long-held perception by political observers here that he was a weak and malleable alternative to President Asif Ali Zardari, says Cyril Almeida, a columnist with the Dawn, an English language newspaper here.

The government is also facing a separate threat from the Supreme Court, which has demanded it send a letter to Swiss authorities to re-open corruption cases against President Zardari.

According to Askari-Rizwi, the analyst, the government may be forced to make some concessions in this case in order to avoid fighting on too many fronts. And while the Supreme Court cases are threatening the civilian government, Pakistan’s judges are also holding the Army in check by threatening to rule any coup illegal. On Wednesday, popular Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry told a delegation “Only a democratic Pakistan can progress.”

One positive, says Almeida, the columnist is that “if this had happened 15 years ago, a coup would have already taken place.”

He adds that the key question now is: "Has the system evolved to the extent that an Army chief who wants to take over can’t, because the media, Supreme Court, and international pressure mean that it’s not an option anymore? Or are we back to the bad old Pakistan, in which when the Army chief feels his job is under threat it’s the civilians who are out of a job?”

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