Mar 27, 2009

A coup that failed

Pakistan's history since Independence is replete with coups d'états led by military adventurers. There has also been a second type: the military-backed coups in which the outward constitutional forms were preserved. The overthrow of the Junejo government (1988), the toppling of Benazir-I (1990) and Benazir-II (1997) and the ouster of Nawaz Sharif-I (1993) belong to this category. The third variety is the purely civilian coups, such as the dismissal of the Nazimuddin cabinet in 1953 and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in 1954.Until this month, the only example of an unsuccessful coup was Musharraf's "emergency" of November 2007. His object in staging the coup was to get another five-year term as president. He failed, though it took a sustained nationwide campaign of nine months before he was finally booted out of the Presidency. Zardari's power grab of Feb 25 is the latest instance in our history of a civilian coup, and the second one of a coup that failed. It is a sign of progress that it took just three weeks to force him to climb down. The political tremors triggered by Zardari's ill-considered move are in fact still being felt, and we do not know yet whether he will still be in the Presidency when the dust finally settles. There has been rejoicing at the government's decision to restore the deposed judges, as well as a sense of pride that an attempted coup was foiled by "people power." But we should also not forget how close the country was to the edge of a precipice in the night of March 15. A post mortem of the events between Feb 25 and March 16 brings to light several scary facts about the way our political leaders operate. First, the aim of Zardari's game plan, which unfolded with the disqualification decision against the Sharif brothers and the imposition of governor's rule, was in the first place to install a PPP-led government in Punjab with the support of the PML-Q. But it was also part of a broader strategy to co-opt the PML-Q at both the federal and provincial levels. With the PML-Q on board and with the PPP's own enhanced representation in the Senate, a constitutional amendment was to be pushed in the Parliament giving a three-year extension to Dogar as chief justice of the Supreme Court, as well as constitutional protection to the NRO, so that no future court or Parliament may undo the amnesty given under the ordinance. Second, these plans have been stymied as far as giving an extension to Dogar is concerned, but the effort to give constitutional protection to the NRO continues. Third, as the nation held its collective breath in the night of March 15, decisions affecting its future were being taken by a small cabal (the "gang of four," according to a report in this newspaper) acting not to advance national interest but purely out of concern for its own political survival. The country was held captive to the wishes and whims of one man and a small circle of his underlings and cronies. Fourth, the decision to restore the chief justice was taken by Zardari because of "advice" from the army and pressure from Washington, not because of the popular demand for or because it was the right thing to do. Fifth, the prime minister seems not to have been privy to Zardari's plots. Once Zardari had struck, the prime minister made a sincere and vigorous effort, backed by the army chief, to convince the PPP co-chairman to reinstate the chief justice and take steps to end governor's rule. The prime minister even jeopardised his own credibility by claiming, falsely, in his address to the nation that Zardari had all along been in favour of the restoration and had only delayed it until Dogar's retirement because of a promise Zardari had made that he would not remove any judge before the end of the judge's tenure. Gilani seems not to have noticed that a president has no license to subvert the Constitution, as Zardari did by obstructing the restoration of the deposed judges, only because he has made a "promise" to someone.The restoration of the chief justice has now temporarily defused the crisis but it is far from over. Having lost the protection of the Dogar court, Zardari is now even more intent than before on giving constitutional protection to the NRO. He is following two parallel tacks for this purpose. The first is the path of reconciliation with the PML-N, in which the PPP would restore the Punjab government and cooperate in undoing the 17th Amendment. In return, the PML-N would agree to make the NRO a permanent law not open to challenge in the courts. The second tack is that of confrontation with the PML-N. This calls for a PPP-PML(Q) alliance at the centre and in Punjab. The first approach is represented by Gilani and the second by Taseer. The common aim of both, as far as Zardari is concerned, is constitutional protection for the NRO. The battle for Punjab, like the earlier one over the restoration of the deposed judges, is in fact also a battle for the NRO. Whether this ordinance gets validated by a constitutional amendment now depends very largely upon Nawaz Sharif. There are some disturbing signs that he might agree to make a deal on this issue with Zardari "in the larger national interest." That would be a betrayal. Those who siphoned off national wealth to fatten their overseas bank accounts must be made to cough it up. If Nawaz now agrees to an amnesty for those who allegedly stole hundreds of millions, he will be putting himself in the not so distinguished company of Musharraf. Zardari probably does not realise how much his position has been weakened by his dubious methods of governance. His popularity has reached the same abysmal levels that Musharraf attained towards the end of his regime. Like Musharraf in his last days in power, Zardari too is largely confined to the Aiwan-e-Sadr, Dubai apart, and is afraid to venture out in public. His backers in Washington are also coming round to the view that banking too much on someone whose public support is so low would be a mistake. Even Gilani is beginning to assert his authority as prime minister. His statement in Lahore before the Punjab PPP that the president is bound by the Constitution to follow the prime minister's advice on ending governor's rule, which in any case cannot last for more than two months, cannot have been very reassuring for Zardari. Besides, the question of the validity of the NRO is expected to come up before the Supreme Court sooner or later, and there is no telling what the outcome would be. Time is pressing and the chances of the PML-Q teaming up with the PPP are receding. After all, if there is anything constant in the former "king's party," it is that it always sides with the winner. The more Zardari looks like a loser, the less likely is it that they will go with him.The arbitrary manner in which Zardari has been exercising the powers of president has further strengthened the case for the repeal of the 17th Amendment. The main argument in favour of a powerful presidency was that the head of state is above party politics and therefore should have the power to dissolve the Parliament in the event of a political impasse and to make appointments to posts that are non-political in nature, such as governors and chiefs of the armed forces. Zardari has now upended this proposition. The whole nation is longing for an end to the long-drawn political crisis which has brought governance to a standstill. But that seems unlikely to happen as long as everything is held hostage to the NRO. There is an American saying, attributed to a baseball star named Yogi Berra, that "It ain't over till the fat lady sings." Berra was referring to an opera performance. The political soap opera that we are witnessing in Pakistan will not be over till the man occupying the Presidency sings. By Asif Ezdi

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