Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — In its standoff with President Asif Ali Zardari's administration, Pakistan's powerful military is relying on an institution that experts say is equally antagonistic toward the civilian government: the country's high court.
The Pakistani capital has been awash with rumors that the army, which is fed up with a civilian government defined by corruption and ineffectiveness, is planning a coup. But as the rift between civilian leaders and the security establishment widens, it's becoming clear that a military takeover isn't what the generals envision.
Rather, analysts say the military appears to be aligning itself with the Supreme Court, a body with strong backing from everyday Pakistanis and the legal firepower to endanger Zardari's tenuous grip on governance. An outright coup probably would bring international criticism of the generals; experts say those traditional power brokers would welcome Zardari's ouster through court action.
"Both are acting in a manner in which they are reinforcing each other," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst. "They are very quietly and discreetly helping each other … even if there doesn't appear to be a formal arrangement between the two."
Last week, Pakistani news media quoted military sources as saying the army stood ready to enforce any action that the high court took against the government. The remarks came just days after the Supreme Court had warned Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani that it could remove him from office if he did not abide by the court's long-standing demand that he reinstate corruption proceedings against Zardari.
The court's feud with Zardari dates back to the early days of his presidency, when he initially balked at reinstating Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who had been driven from his post by former ruler Pervez Musharraf. Zardari reportedly feared that Chaudhry would allow old corruption charges against him in Switzerland to proceed.
For the last two years, the high court has been demanding that the government send a letter to the Swiss government requesting the revival of those charges. The case stems from Zardari's conviction in absentia in 2003 in Switzerland on money-laundering charges. The case was suspended while he and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, appealed and was later dropped at the request of the Pakistani government.
Gilani's administration refuses to seek a reopening of the case. The high court has ordered government officials to appear Monday to explain the administration's inaction.
Zardari's presidency is also threatened by an investigation involving a Pakistani American businessman's claims that he was asked by then-Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani to pass on to U.S. officials an unsigned memo seeking the Obama administration's help in fending off a potential military coup against Zardari's government. Observers say Zardari could be forced from office if it is proved that he was behind the memo.
Haqqani's onetime lawyer in the case, Asma Jahangir, quit in protest Jan. 3, criticizing what she said was the military's undue influence over the Supreme Court.
"The army still holds a great deal of power in Pakistan," Jahangir, president of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Assn. and one of the country's leading legal voices, said in a recent telephone interview. "And if their status quo is not only maintained but they're patted on the back by the judiciary, then I'm afraid the civilian government doesn't have much to stand on."
The converging interests of the judiciary and military pose a formidable challenge for Zardari, who is deeply unpopular and seen as ineffective in solving the country's severe economic troubles and homegrown insurgency. Zardari's aim appears to be to ensure that his government survives until March, when a strong showing in Senate elections would bolster the ruling Pakistan People's Party's clout in parliament and provide it a strong foundation for national elections slated for 2013.
Half of the chamber's seats are up for election in the March 2 vote, in which senators will be elected by members of provincial legislatures. Pakistani media are predicting that the ruling party will win a majority.
"That's what the opposition parties, along with the Supreme Court and the military, want to stop," said Rizvi, the political analyst.
The crisis between the civilian leadership and the military has become a major distraction for a government struggling to tackle severe electricity and natural gas shortages, a stagnant economy and the insurgency. Pakistani Taliban militants and other extremist groups have stepped up their pace of attacks after weeks of relative calm.
On Saturday, Taliban militants stormed a police station in the northwestern city of Dera Ismail Khan, killing a police officer and three civilians. Last week, a remote-controlled bomb blast in the northwestern town of Jamrud killed 29 people at a bus terminal. On Sunday, a bomb exploded at a Shiite Muslim procession in the southern Punjab town of Khanpur, killing 13 people, the Associated Press reported.
"Issues like the economy and terrorism have lost their salience," Rizvi said. "It's unfortunate the egos of individuals and institutions are undermining the interests of the common person."