A long summer of political turmoil has begun that makes harder the search for a new equilibrium with Washington
A tale of two capital cities in the grip of political uncertainty unfolded in South Asia last week. Islamabad was the scene of a fast-paced soap opera that throws into further doubt the future of the democratization process and complicates efforts to repair the breakdown of U.S.-Pakistan relations. Meanwhile in New Delhi, simmering tensions within the coalition government erupted into open revolt, further constraining decision-making at a time when the United States in seeking to draw closer strategically.
This post will focus on the Pakistani case, the more acute of the two; a subsequent post will deal with the political tussles in India, which might ultimately prove to be cathartic.
Pakistan has long been marred by political ructions that have more to do with clashing personalities than principled disputes. The country’s trajectory might well be materially different absent the blood feud between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s. Likewise the on-going vendetta between Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s current president and Bhutto’s widower, is impeding progress on critical national problems as well as tarnishing the very concept of democratic governance.
Yet even against this background, last week’s events were extraordinary. Striking, too, was how, with the country once again earning a top place in the roster of failed states, Pakistan could reliably be counted on to give credence to that dubious billing. This time Zardari and Iftikhar Chaudhry, the Supreme Court’s chief justice, were the ones spewing bad blood, in the process upending a tenuous measure of political stability that had recently emerged in Islamabad.
Since its installation in March 2008, Zardari’s government has been in a running struggle with the powerful military establishment and an assertive judiciary. These ructions have given rise to persistent fears of yet another army coup – as recently as earlier this year – as well as accusations that the Supreme Court is acting in cahoots with the military to undermine Zardari and his prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani. Against heavy odds, however, the two somehow managed to limp along. Last month Gilani became the country’s longest-serving prime minister, a signal accomplishment in view of how many of his predecessors have been hanged, exiled and otherwise forcibly evicted from office. And while his administration was highly unpopular and hardly a model of competence, it was well on its way to becoming the country’s first democratically-elected government to serve out its allotted five-year term.
Yet this past week, the Supreme Court suddenly sent Gilani packing on the grounds that his contempt-of-court conviction in April disqualified him from holding office and serving in parliament. The conviction stemmed from Gilani’s defiance of the court’s order to reactivate a dormant money-laundering case brought by the Swiss government against Bhutto and Zardari. Chaudhry’s focus on the case strikes many observers as overzealous, given Swiss reluctance to re-open the investigation, the constitutional immunity Zardari enjoys as president, and the long record of Islamabad power brokers using corruption allegations to harass political opponents.
Chaudhry justified Gilani’s removal as demonstrating the rule of law in a country where governmental malfeasance is endemic. Some commentators view the action as part of the institutional skirmishes that can be expected in Pakistan’s halting democratic transformation and note that Chaudhry also has turned his attention on abuses perpetuated by the security establishment. An activist Supreme Court that sees itself as a guardian of the public integrity has likewise emerged in neighboring India.
But Gilani’s dismissal appears to be less about the advancement of constitutional concepts than the settling of personal scores. The chief justice, a hero of the popular movement that forced Pervez Musharraf into exile, is reportedly indignant that Zardari refused, until forced to bow to public pressure, to reinstate him to the bench after Musharraf sacked him at the start of the state of emergency that was declared in November 2007. Once returned to the court, Chaudhry promptly struck back by invalidating a general amnesty that Musharraf had forged with Bhutto and Zardari, thereby opening Zardari to criminal prosecution once he leaves the presidency.
The rationale and timing of Gilani’s ouster also seems suspect. Since parliament is the only body empowered to dismiss a prime minister, many observers (here and here) describe it as a sort of judicial coup. Moreover, when the Supreme Court first convicted Gilani on contempt charges, it seemed content to limit itself to the highly symbolic sentence it meted out – detention amounting to mere seconds. Its abrupt ruling last week has led some to conclude that it was a diversion meant to deflect attention away from bribe-taking accusations against Chaudhry’s own son, which Zardari’s camp may be orchestrating.
Gilani’s removal proved to be the opening act of a chaotic week. Zardari quickly settled on Makhdoom Shahabuddin as a replacement, only to have a court issue an arrest warrant for the man. The warrant has to do with Shahabuddin’s alleged involvement in a drug importation scandal while he was serving as health minister. Significantly, the court acted upon the request of an anti-narcotics body run by the military. Gilani’s son is also implicated in the matter and a warrant was similarly issued for his detention.
Zardari’s second choice, Raja Pervez Ashraf, easily won parliamentary approval by week’s end but he, too, has had run-ins with the judiciary. The Supreme Court earlier ended his stint as the federal minister in charge of power production when it found that a program he oversaw to spur private generation of electricity was riddled with graft. Ruling that he is “liable both for civil and criminal action,” the court has instructed the National Accountability Bureau, an anti-corruption agency, to open an inquiry.
Given Chaudhry’s doggedness on the matter, Ashraf is unlikely to be left off the hook regarding Zardari’s corruption case, opening up the possibility that he, too, could be removed from office in short order. And another opportunity to nettle the president will arrive in the coming days as the Supreme Court moves forward on the bizarre Memogate affair. A judicial commission earlier this month concluded that Zardari confidante Husain Haqqani was guilty of disloyalty to the nation during his recent stint as Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington. The finding opens Haqqani open to possible treason charges and has become another political headache for the beleaguered Zardari.
As argued in a previous post, the rising tumult of domestic politics is exacerbating the strains in U.S.-Pakistan relations and complicating efforts to resolve the seven month-long blockade of NATO supply lines into Afghanistan that is costing Washington a $100 million a month as cargo is shipped via more expensive routes in Central Asia. A quick end of the dispute is very much in Islamabad’s interests and on several occasions appeared to be within reach. The thread-bare public treasury – not to mention the Pakistani army’s vast business empire – is in desperate need of revenue that would come from increased transit fees as well as the $3.5 billion in military and economic assistance that the Obama administration has requested for the upcoming fiscal year. Moreover, the country will soon be forced to turn once again to the International Monetary Fund for a financial lifeline, a move that will require Washington’s sufferance.
Given Islamabad’s record of turning over Al Qaeda figures as a means of buying American good will, last week’s announcement of the capture of a militant thought to be in charge of some of the terror network’s international operations may be a further signal that the security establishment wants to mend ties with Washington.
Yet events of the past week herald the beginning of a long summer of political turmoil in Islamabad that makes harder the search for a new equilibrium in U.S.-Pakistan relations. Don’t be surprised if the resulting exasperation in Washington results in renewed calls for unilateral military action on Pakistani soil, for further reductions in U.S. aid levels, and an for overall approach of “congagement” or “benign neglect” toward Islamabad.
This commentary was originally posted on Chanakya’s Notebook. I invite you to follow me on Twitter.