Critical week ahead for Pakistan's besieged government

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 15, 2012 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's political crisis, which pits its president against determined foes in the country's parliament, Supreme Court and military, is likely to reach fever pitch on Monday with a confidence vote scheduled in parliament and hearings scheduled in two critical court cases.

The crisis is so intense that President Asif Zardari's administration may be willing to call early elections as soon as October, according to members of his ruling coalition and its advisers. But that may not be enough to mollify the opposition, which wants an earlier date, or the country's powerful military establishment, which is believed to be trying to force a so-called "soft coup" that would see Zardari, a critic of the military's traditional dominance of Pakistan, forced out by parliament or the courts.

The threat of an outright coup also hangs over the crisis, if the politicians cannot find a way out or the court proceedings reach absolute stalemate.

Whether the government can reach agreement with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif is unclear. Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party doesn't want to announce elections until after voting in March for a new Senate, balloting that the PPP is widely expected to win. But Sharif would like the new elections to be in the summer, perhaps June, which would require an earlier announcement.

"There is no other option for the government to come out of the current crisis without elections," said an adviser to the PPP leadership, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the issue, as did the other coalition members. "It is in the interests of the PPP to reach an agreement with Nawaz (Sharif)."

The PPP rules with three other major coalition partners, but the alliance is looking shaky, with two of the parties, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, somewhat distancing themselves from the government.

A senior member of the coalition said that they had so far agreed internally only to a general election to be held in October. That would be just a few months before the February 2013 date when the parliament would complete its five-year term and elections would have to take place anyway.

An early election should also placate the courts and the military. A supposedly neutral caretaker government would have to be installed to oversee a three-month electioneering period.

Another coalition member said: "It is 100 percent certain that there will be elections in 2012. The only solution is elections. It doesn't matter whether they are held in June or October."

Zardari's coalition itself brought Monday's confidence vote resolution to parliament, cleverly wording it so that it asks for support not for the prime minister or even the government, but for democracy. That makes it difficult to oppose.

But the PPP's troubles in parliament are only one of the fronts in its battle for survival. The courts and the military are both maneuvering aggressively against the party's leaders, with two explosive cases coming up for hearings Monday.

The first stems from a 2007 decree by then President Pervez Musharraf that granted immunity from prosecution to Zardari and other exiled PPP politicians in an effort to persuade them to return to Pakistan to participate in elections Musharraf was being pressured to hold by the United States.

The Supreme Court later ruled, however, that the decree was illegal and demanded that the government reopen corruption charges against Zardari stemming from the time when his wife, the assassinated PPP leader Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister.

The government declined, however, and now the court has summoned the government to explain its actions. The court could declare Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in contempt of court, a finding that would in effect remove him from office.

The other case involves the so-called "memogate" scandal in which a judicial commission is probing allegations that close Zardari adviser and former ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani wrote a memo that was passed to U.S. officials in May. That memo offered to replace the Pakistan military's top officials in return for U.S. support should the military attempt to push Zardari aside.

Haqqani, who was forced to resign, disputes that he had anything to do with the memo, which the military has said was nothing short of treason.

The judicial commission may take testimony this week from an American businessman and occasional news media commentator, Mansoor Ijaz, who first claimed that he had delivered the memo to U.S. officials in a column that appeared in the British newspaper the Financial Times in October. Ijaz has said he will show up as a witness, though he apparently has yet to receive a visa to enter Pakistan.

The government is in an open row with the army over the memogate case. The military's spymaster has already told the court in a written affidavit that he believes Ijaz's allegations. Last week, Gilani and army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani traded rebukes over the affidavits, with Gilani calling them "unconstitutional and illegal" because they had been approved by the government.

In a meeting with Zardari over the weekend, a furious Kayani reportedly demanded that Gilani retract his remarks and apologize. But Sunday Gilani made it clear he is not backing down.

"According to the Constitution, the prime minister, the ministers, the ministers of state, are all answerable only to the parliament. I am not answerable to any individual," Gilani told reporters the central city of Vehari.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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