In earlier posts (here and here), I argued that Pakistani politics would be fraught with turbulence in 2013, with one of the key casualties being the fragile détente process that has recently emerged between New Delhi and Islamabad. Two weeks into the year, events are already conspiring to validate this assessment.
Pakistan, the most important country on everyone’s roster of failed states in the making, is once again in the throes of political chaos. The Supreme Court, led by maverick Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has just ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on corruption charges arising from Ashraf’s earlier stint as the federal minister in charge of power production. Two years ago, the judiciary ousted him from the post when it found that a program he oversaw to spur private generation of electricity was riddled with graft. The latest action is sure to aggravate what was already shaping up to be a chaotic round of parliamentary elections that are scheduled to take place in the next few months.
Frictions between the civilian government and the assertive judiciary have become a running theme in Islamabad. Last summer, the Supreme Court dismissed Ashraf’s precedessor, Yusuf Raza Gilani, for defying its order to reactivate a dormant money-laundering case brought against President Asif Ali Zardari by the Swiss government. Zardari quickly settled on Makhdoom Shahabuddin as a replacement, only to have a lower court issue an arrest warrant for the man in connection with his alleged involvement in a drug importation scandal during his time as health minister.
Chaudhry justifies these actions as necessary demonstrations of the rule of law in a country where governmental malfeasance is endemic. And it’s worth noting an activist Supreme Court that sees itself as a guardian of the public integrity has likewise emerged in neighboring India. Moreover, ructions can be expected in Pakistan’s halting democratic transformation as various civilian institutions sort out their respective roles following a decade of military rule.
Still Chaudhry’s zeal appears to be motivated less by high-minded constitutional principles 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 Benazir Bhutto and Zardari, thereby opening Zardari to criminal prosecution once he leaves the presidency. Chaudhry is slated for mandatory retirement at the end of the year but one wonders, given the evident hard feelings, whether he’s in any mood to go quietly.
Compounding the sense of instability is the emergence of several new political movements that many suspect are secretly backed by the powerful military establishment, which barely bothers to conceal its contempt for Zardari’s administration. These include the protest movement led by Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadir, an enigmatic populist Muslim cleric (background here and here) who just arrived back in the country last month after residing in Canada for six years. Mr. Qadir, who voices support for both the military and the judiciary, has launched a mysteriously well-funded media campaign critical of Zardari and others in the political class, and tens of thousands of his supporters have now encamped in Islamabad demanding the president’s resignation and the parliament’s dissolution.
Mr. Qadir’s sudden arrival on the scene parallels the ascendance of two other anti-Zardari movements. Difa-e-Pakistan (“Defense of Pakistan Council”), a coalition of some 40 militant outfits that is a font of anti-American and anti-India sentiment, emerged last year just as the long-insignificant opposition party led by Imran Khan, gathered noticeable steam. Khan, the charismatic cricket hero turned political leader, has made much hay blaming America as the source of the country’s woes.
Growing levels of societal conflict has reinforced the sense of political crisis. Pakistan suffered its worst sectarian violence a few days ago when horrific bomb attacks in Quetta, capital of the restive province of Baluchistan, killed some 90 people. This is just the latest turn in an ever-spiraling cycle of Sunni-Shia conflict that threatens to rend a country founded as a place of refuge for South Asia’s Muslims. Making things even worse is the accelerating political strife in two of Pakistan’s major cities – Karachi and Peshawar.
The all-around turmoil is diverting high-level political attention from the tenuous détente with India just as the bilateral relationship has hit its worst crisis since the Mumbai terror strikes in November 2008. Less than a year ago, the New York Times praised Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “for their sensible, workmanlike effort over the past year to improve relations between the two nuclear rivals.” Now, with small-unit skirmishes breaking out along the de-facto frontier in the disputed Kashmir region over the past week, the Indian army chief is promising “aggressive and offensive” retaliation while Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid questions Islamabad’s “seriousness in pursuing normalization of relations.” Even Mr. Singh, an ardent champion of better ties with Islamabad, has concluded that “there cannot be business as usual with Pakistan.” One immediate repercussion is that New Delhi has put the kibosh on implementing a liberalized bilateral visa regime that was hailed as an important milestone in relations.
The political tumult in Pakistan also places at risk other propitious developments, such as Islamabad’s tentative moves to play a more constructive role in Afghanistan as NATO forces accelerate their exit, as well as efforts to find a new equilibrium in relations between Washington and Islamabad. Above all, it jeopardizes the gathering democratization process inside Pakistan that promises to move the country gradually in the liberal and moderate direction its founders envisioned.
Buckle up – Pakistan has embarked upon what will be a year-long wild ride.