Political Turmoil in Pakistan Leads to Army Takeover Speculation

Nawaz Sharif, former Pakistani prime minister, is surrounded by supporters during a rally in the central city of Gujranwala on March 16. (Photo: Asif Hassan / AFP-Getty Images)

Last week was a time of great upheaval in Pakistani politics. The entire world watched the turmoil unfold with curiosity. On all sides, the assumption was that the Pakistan army had the capability to overpower the government at any time. During the crisis, discussions between Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, President Asif Ali Zardari and General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani went on continuously. There was media speculation that due to the fear of a military takeover, Zardari had gone underground. It seemed that democracy in Pakistan would soon breathe its last, with the army retaking charge of the government. Refuting these rumors, the president's office asserted that Zardari was safe in his residence.

The reason behind the upheaval seemed to be that the head of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, demanded the reinstatement of sacked former Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhary, along with other judges. In support of this cause, Sharif was organizing a long protest march to Islamabad. Due to the current state of anarchy and terrorism in Pakistan, the march was considered to be an unsafe and dangerous step. The issue was rendered moot when on the morning of March 16, Gilani announced that after the retirement of the present Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Donger on March 21, Choudhary, along with all the fired judges would be reinstated. Politically, this appears to be a big victory for Sharif and a blow to Zardari.

To place this incident in its proper context, the political careers of Sharif and Zardari should be examined. Sharif, who was born on December 25, 1949, is counted among Pakistan's big industrialists. He has always been active in groundroots politics. Sharif twice became prime minister, in 1990 and 1997. Born in 1955, Zardari is also ranked among the rich industrialists of Pakistan. However, his introduction to politics started after his marriage to former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, on December 18, 1987. After the nuptials, Zardari began to play a role in national politics. He was twice elected a member of the national assembly, in 1990 and 1996, served two times as a federal minister, and as a senator from 1997 to 1999.

On December 27, 2007 Bhutto was assassinated and her 19-year old son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari succeeded her as the titular head of the Pakistan People's Party. However, as he was not politically mature at the time, in a sympathetic gesture the Party named the senior Zardari as the acting president. The people of Pakistan, though, were unable to digest the fact that someone who had remained in jail for many years on corruption charges, and known derogatorily as "Mr. Ten Percent," was in the country's top position. While in exile, Sharif and Benazir Bhutto had united against the rule of General Parvez Musharraf and in 2006 signed a "Charter of Democracy." In it, there were three points: the first was to establish democracy in Pakistan, at all costs; second, to avoid mutual confrontation; and third, to end the role of army in the country's politics.

An important fact to note is that the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League are traditionally antagonistic towards each other. It was the mutual antipathy towards Musharraf that brought these ideologically opposite parties together. Their shared platform was to free the country from the grip of the army, and Musharraf, and restore democracy. However, during the election process and after the Bhutto assassination, the political equation clearly changed. Due to the wave of sympathy, even Sharif called her "his sister." Such a statement was more based on circumstances, and not reality. After some initial hesitation, Sharif accepted Zardari as Pakistan's 11th president, but politicians are always in search of new opportunities to enhance their power.

Circumstances made Zardari the president, but terrorism continuously increased during his tenure. The Taliban was strengthening itself, and suicide attacks were increasing. The power of the Taliban increased to the extent that they were successful in setting a NATO depot on fire. During this period of anarchy in Pakistan, the government was profoundly embarrassed in front of the entire world when on March 3 the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked by 12 terrorists in broad daylight. In addition, the United States was putting intense pressure on the Pakistani government to control the deteriorating national situation.

Obviously, a clever, mature politician like Sharif couldn't let such a chance get away, and he struck while the iron was hot. The planned march towards Islamabad to protest for the reinstatement of sacked judges was merely a side issue. Actually, Sharif wanted to deal a big political blow to Zardari. Now, the assumption is that after the reinstatement of sacked judges on March 21, Sharif will get credit and gain power within the judiciary at the same time. There is speculation that in the near future, Gilani may act in concert with Sharif to relieve Zardari of his duties as president. In any case, at present the good news for the world is that Pakistan has once again escaped from the clutches of the army.

Tanveer Jafri is a columnist based in India, and is a member of the Haryana Sahitya and Haryana Urdu academies, which are state government bodies.