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A more complicated script

December 30, 2011

IMAGINE this were 15 years ago. An army chief wants the prime minister out, the Supreme Court has jumped into the fray, rumours and speculation are churning the political waters.

Back then the civilians’ odds of surviving would have been lower than a houbara bustard chased by an excited sheikh and his flotilla of hunting vehicles.

And yet, in present-day Pakistan, Zardari and his gallery of rogues have managed to hang on to power despite three almighty ruckuses in a matter of weeks. Husain Haqqani has gone amidst the contrived hysteria over memogate. Zardari suddenly upped and left the country to receive treatment for an as yet unexplained ailment.

And the army chief and the DG ISI have submitted stunning statements to the Supreme Court, statements that flatly contradict the political government’s version in a matter the army high command believes impacts on the most sacred of sacreds: national security.

How have the civilians done it? Why are they even here still?

There are some fairly obvious reasons. For one, the old configuration of power has been re-jigged. Instead of the troika of an army chief, president and prime minister locked in two-on-one internecine warfare — army chief and president vs prime minister — we now have the president and prime minister super-glued to each other.

While the president-prime minister combine can’t realistically out-muscle the all-powerful army chief and his ISI sidekick, the civilian leaders can fend off pressures together where separately they would have collapsed.

For another, the real target of the establishment this time is the president, instead of the traditional victim: the constitutionally more vulnerable prime minister. That has made an ouster more complicated.

To oust Gilani you need 172 votes in the 342-member National Assembly, a simple majority; to get Zardari you need 295 from 442, two-thirds of the combined strength of the NA and the Senate.

But beyond the obvious, there are more subtle reasons for the civilians’ survival this time round which suggest, unbelievable as it may sound, that democracy may be structurally stronger than it ever has been.

Absurd? Time to visit a doctor? Hang on a minute and let’s walk through the evidence.

Start with the Supreme Court. When Musharraf ousted Sharif, the space for the doctrine of necessity — that ignoble quasi-jurisprudence used to validate the illegal and unconstitutional — had already been eroded. So Musharraf got just three years of direct rule and the court reserved for itself the right to enforce constitutional guarantees where it deemed it necessary.

Now, the space is even more constricted. Even the most fanciful theories of a judiciary-endorsed ouster of Zardari and co stop short of direct intervention. Nobody seems to think Kayani can grab for himself a hat in addition to COAS. Forget CMLA, chief executive is a stretch for Kayani.

For that, in a delicious unintended consequence, we have Musharraf to thank. His ‘judicial coup’ in 2007 forced a reckoning within the judiciary that has restricted the space for the judges to tinker around with overtly anti-democratic theories.

It remains one of the least explored facts of Pakistani politics why every would-be saviour has had to seek some sort of judicial cover. Perhaps it’s rooted in the constitutional and legalistic approach of the founding fathers as exemplified by Jinnah. Or perhaps it’s a colonial hangover to seek judicial validation.

Whatever the reasons, starting with Ghulam Muhammad and then Ayub onwards, the unconstitutional and illegal have always had to be sanctified by the judiciary. But now, much as some of the robes may loathe Zardari and consider him a blight on Pakistan’s honour, they can’t really do what some of their predecessors, and one of their peers, have done. They’ve been hoisted on their own petard.

(You can almost imagine Zardari lifting his head up from counting all his money and chuckling every now and then about this.)

So too has the space for the generals to interrupt the democratic process been eroded. Even the general with the most vaulting of ambitions has new impediments to face.

For one, the mechanics of a coup are more difficult now. Where once 111 Brigade had to secure just a handful of official residences and offices, one TV headquarters, one radio headquarters, and one telephone headquarters, the list has grown considerably now.

True, by threatening cable operators private news channels could effectively be taken off air and the many cellphone and Internet companies could be ordered to curtail services temporarily.

But suppressing the new and extensive communication infrastructure, necessary at the outset of a coup to smother any ideas people may have of mobilising and organising dissent, isn’t just about physical control. Coups work because, ultimately, the public accepts them.

And this is where Pakistan may have changed the most. There’s just too much information out there, too much awareness for the narrative that the army has answers to what ails Pakistan to gain much traction anymore.

People now know. They’ve exchanged jokes over text messages and are hooked on talk shows that challenge some lies. WikiLeaks has exposed perfidy that many had suspected and the Internet plays host to raucous, irreverent debates.

So, having seen a government fail yet again many among the public at large have turned in hope towards a politician preaching clean governance instead of an army promising to wield the stick.

Cynics could argue that the change in the public’s mood is just a temporary phenomenon: a succession of failed governments and an army leadership not compromised by extensions and spectacular incursions, and we could find ourselves back to square one.

But there’s something to behold in a civilian government that has proved so hard to dislodge, regardless of whether the boys ultimately get their target.

Now, if only we could get civilians who have the will and capacity to govern.

The writer is a member of staff.