Global Insight

January 16, 2013 4:45 pm

Curtain rises on new Pakistani drama

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Army flexes muscles as pressure mounts on Zardari
A supporter of moderate preacher Tahirul Qadri waves this Pakistani national flag on the third day of a protest rally in Islamabad©AFP

A supporter of cleric Tahirul Qadri waves the Pakistani national flag at a protest rally in Islamabad

Few jobs in politics are riskier than the post of Pakistani prime minister. The 21 predecessors of Raja Pervez Ashraf, the incumbent whose arrest for corruption has been ordered by the Supreme Court, include one who was executed and two who were assassinated.

Yusuf Raza Gilani, Mr Ashraf’s immediate predecessor, was dismissed only last year, also by the Supreme Court. He had refused the court’s demand that he ask Switzerland to resume a corruption investigation into his boss, Asif Ali Zardari, who remains president.

Yet only last month Mr Ashraf was confidently predicting that his and Mr Zardari’s civilian government would finish its term of office this year and make Pakistani history as the first elected administration to be succeeded by another government freely chosen by the voters.

The governing Pakistan People’s party (PPP), he said, had not only revitalised the economy and driven back Islamist terrorists from the northern approaches to the capital but had also appointed an election commissioner by agreement with other parties.

“This is the harbinger,” he told the Financial Times during an interview at his official residence in Islamabad. “This is the indicator that the people will have a free, fair and impartial election and this would be to our great credit – a major milestone, a major achievement of our government.”

Flanked by photographs of the PPP’s martyrs – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1979 on the orders of the military dictator Zia ul-Haq, and Bhutto’s daughter Benazir, assassinated five years ago – Mr Ashraf boasted that Pakistan’s media and judiciary were independent, democracy was taking root and elections were imminent.

If a week is a long time in politics, as the British prime minister Harold Wilson once remarked, it seems an age in the chaos and violence of Pakistan. All of Mr Ashraf’s assertions and predictions have been thrown into doubt by the events of the past seven days and his country’s political future is now as uncertain as his own.

A week ago, bombs in Quetta killed 96 people, prompting angry protests from members of the Shia Muslim minority who were targeted by Sunni extremists. Mr Ashraf sacked the provincial government of Baluchistan, the restless western province where Quetta is the capital.

Then Tahirul Qadri, a moderate Sufi religious leader recently returned from abroad, occupied part of Islamabad with thousands of supporters in an anti-government protest. The ample financing and well-tuned organisation of the demonstrations suggested to the suspicious political commentators of Pakistan that the security forces were behind him.

In the midst of the confusion on Tuesday, the Supreme Court made its move against Mr Ashraf, insisting on his arrest over accusations that he received bribes for electricity projects when he was minister of water and power.

Pakistan is also embroiled in a new round of military skirmishes with India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. India says Pakistani troops crossed the so-called line of control, last week killing two Indian soldiers, beheading one corpse and mutilating both.

What happens next will depend on the complex and sometimes covert interactions between the main players in politics today: the Zardari-Ashraf government; the activist judiciary under Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry; the army under General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, chief of staff; and Mr Qadri, the new public voice of dissatisfaction with the corruption and incompetence of Pakistan’s civilian leaders.

Even this list is incomplete, since it omits the unpredictable and bloodthirsty Islamists of the Pakistani Taliban and other extremist groups, as well as opposition civilian politicians such as Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, the former cricketer who once debated whether to throw in his lot with Mr Qadri but decided not to.

Several outcomes are possible. Mr Zardari could throw Mr Ashraf to the wolves and appoint a new prime minister until the general election is called. Or he could yield ground to the demonstrators and dissolve parliament now.

Few diplomats, or Pakistani analysts, predict an outright military coup d’état on the old model but the army, like the judiciary, is flexing its muscles in case it decides once more to take to the stage of the country’s increasingly chaotic and violent politics.

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