For the first time in its 65 year history, Pakistan is poised to see an elected government fully complete its term in March. With chaos erupting on several fronts, though, the path toward electing a new government appears to be full of obstacles.
Last week saw sectarian bombings kill 96 Shi’ites in Quetta on Thursday alone, and tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets, refusing to bury the dead until Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf came to Quetta and agreed to fire the entire provincial government, as it was suspected of being involved in sectarian violence.
Ashraf finds himself at the center of a controversy, as well. The Pakistan Supreme Court issued a warrant for his arrest today in a long-simmering scandal dating back to when Ashraf was minister of water and power before he became Prime Minister. From Dawn:
The prime minister has been accused of receiving kickbacks and commission in the RPPs [Rental Power Projects] case as minister for water and power.
In the case, nine RPPs firms were accused of receiving more than Rs22 billion [1 R = .01 US $] as a mobilisation advance from the government to commission the projects but most of them did not set up their plants and a few of them installed them but with inordinate delay.
From the Reuters article on today’s developments in Pakistan, we have a description of how the election process is supposed to proceed:
The government and opposition are poised to start negotiating the formation of a caretaker administration to oversee the run-up to the polls as soon as parliament is dissolved, which is due to happen in March. An election date has yet to be announced.
The New York Times article on developments informs us that the elections are required to take place within 60 days of the end of the term for the parliament. Complicating the process immensely though, is the sudden appearance of cleric Tahir ul Qadri, who has returned to Pakistan from Canada to lead massive protests demanding that the government resign immediately, instead of in March. The Times explains that some see the hand of the military behind Qadri:
The court order came as an enigmatic preacher turned politician, Muhammad Tahir ul Qadri, addressed thousands of supporters outside Parliament and repeated calls for the government’s ouster. In earlier speeches, he said that a caretaker administration led by technocrats should take its place.
The confluence of the two events stoked growing speculation that Pakistan’s powerful military was quietly supporting moves that would delay general elections that are due to take place this spring, most likely through the imposition of a military-backed caretaker administration.
Events continue to unfold at a very rapid pace in Pakistan. On Tuesday, I had noted, in comments to my post on the constitutional crisis facing the country over implementing the repeal of the National Reconciliation Ordinance, that Dawn was reporting that Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari had said that he is ready to resign if that is what his political party desires. Further, Zardari had called for a meeting of Parliament for today, along with a meeting just before that with high officials in his PPP political party.
In the meantime, Wednesday was very eventful, as the civilian government and military traded multiple charges back and forth over the continuing memogate controversy. In the midst of that tussle, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani fired the country’s defense secretary and the military announced a new head for a “brigade known for its prominent role in coups”.
Today, it appears that Zardari has once again fled to Dubai. Both a scheduled medical follow-up to last month’s hospitalization in Dubai and a wedding have been given as reasons for this trip. So far, I’ve seen no mention in any of the stories on his departure of the Parliament meeting and political party meeting that he had called for today. Neither a “scheduled” medical trip nor a trip for a wedding make sense as explanations for a sudden trip which cancels these hastily called meetings. Despite the explanation that this is a one day trip, I’d be very surprised if he chooses to return to Pakistan.
Reuters reports on Zardari’s departure:
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari flew to Dubai on a scheduled one-day trip on Thursday, a member of the ruling party and sources said, while tensions grew over a memo seeking U.S. help in preventing a coup by Pakistan’s powerful military.
Relations between Pakistan’s civilian government and the military have reached their lowest point since a coup in 1999, reducing the chances that the leadership can take on the country’s enormous social and economic challenges.
Military sources say that while they would like Zardari to go, it should be through constitutional means, not another of the coups that have marked Pakistan’s almost 65 years of independence.
“There is no talk in the military of a takeover,” a mid-level army officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, told Reuters.
“I don’t foresee a military coup.”
The stage is set, of course, for the “constitutional” removal of Zardari, as his government has a deadline of Monday for responding to the Supreme Court on the NRO case. As noted earlier this week, the Supreme Court has threatened to find the civilian government unfit to rule if it does not respond properly to its rulings. Zardari’s sudden departure, only four days before that deadline, would appear to be an admission that he and his government have no response to the charges.