Political and Internal Developments
A tumultuous week in which speculation about the imminent demise of the PPP-led coalition reached a crescendo, ended in an anti-climax after Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani appeared before the Supreme Court bench that had put him on notice on charges of contempt of court.
Assuring the apex court that he held it in high esteem and could never even think of committing contempt of court, Prime Minister Gilani said that the government had not written a letter to the Swiss authorities to reopen the money laundering case against President Asif Zardari because it believed that the President enjoyed complete immunity. Having appointed a moderate and sober lawyer like Aitzaz Ahsan as his counsel, the PM had already sent a strong signal that the government would not like to enter into an unseemly confrontation with the Court. Aitzaz, who even before taking up the PM’s brief was of the view that the heavens wouldn’t fall if government wrote to the Swiss authorities since the President enjoyed complete immunity, skilfully turned the entire argument away from contempt and towards the immunity enjoyed by the President. A seemingly disarmed Court, which paid compliments to the PM for appearing before the bench to answer the charge of contempt, adjourned the proceedings for two weeks. With the prospect of a ‘judicial coup’ receding, the political temperature in Islamabad came down considerably and for now at least, the government can breathe easy.
Earlier, in what sounded like a death knell for the beleaguered PPP-led coalition government, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Prime Minister asking him to show cause as to why contempt of court proceeding should not be initiated against him for not implementing the Court verdict in the NRO case. The notice itself was the result of the Court’s exasperation with the government which had simply refused to respond to the six options that had been laid out week before last. While the government seemed to remain unmoved, the National Accountability Bureau chief apologised unconditionally before the court and initiated action against some former and serving government officials who had been indicted in cases of corruption and abuse of office. On the eve of the PM’s appearance in the court, a Supreme Court bench hearing the Presidential reference in the ZA Bhutto case, temporarily suspended the license of former law minister Babar Awan to practise in the Supreme Court for prima facie ridiculing the judiciary. Awan has already been issued a notice for committing contempt of court and will be appearing before the court to explain his conduct next month.
Even before the Supreme Court issued contempt of court notice to the PM, the pressure on the government, which seemed to be getting pushed into a corner by an angry army, a restive opposition and a hostile judiciary, was clearly visible. In order to create some space for itself, the government fell back on parliament and sought to get a resolution passed – some saw it as seeking a confidence vote – in parliament that would strengthen its position vis-a-vis the other players. Initially, the government seemed inclined to bring a resolution that would effectively pit the parliament against the army and the judiciary. Fears that such a resolution would make an institutional clash inevitable and push things to the point of no return spooked most of the allies of the government who counselled restraint and impressed upon the need to avoid any confrontation with either the army or the judiciary. The lack of unstinted support from the allies forced the government to change the ‘anti-establishment’ resolution to a ‘pro-democracy’ resolution.
Both at the time of tabling the resolution and a few days later when the resolution was voted upon, Prime Minister Gilani made two stirring speeches in which he not only explained his own position but also took pot shots at the detractors of the government. Denying that he was seeking a vote of confidence or trying to become a martyr, Gilani said that the resolution was only aimed at strengthening democracy and democratic institutions. Recounting the achievements of his government, he highlighted that it was during his time as PM that the army for the first time became accountable to parliament. In what appeared to be a veiled attack on the army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani, Gilani asked how it was that the people who were behind the creation of the NRO had got away scot free while the incumbent government was being targeted under the same ‘black law’.
The resolution was finally voted upon the day the Supreme Court summoned the PM to answer to the charge of having committed contempt of court. Although the main opposition party walked out of the House, the resolution was carried with more than a two thirds majority with all the government’s allies and even an opposition party – JUIF – voting in its favour. In a speech after the voting on the resolution, Prime Minister Gilani made clear his intentions to present himself before the Supreme Court. Maintaining that the resolution wasn’t aimed against either the army or the judiciary, Gilani warned that if the government was ousted illegally or if democracy was derailed in any manner, no one would be left unscathed.
It was not just the government that seemed to back off from confrontation; signals also came from the army, including a meeting between Gen Kayani and President Zardari and then a meeting between the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Gen Khalid Wyne and President Zardari, that it did not want to push things over the edge. There were reports that local and international (Saudis and also British and American) mediators had jumped in to cool things down and that the army had conveyed that while it never wanted to push ahead with the ‘memogate’ controversy, it was caught in the middle after the PMLN chief Nawaz Sharif took the issue to the Supreme Court. Gen Kayani is believed to have said that the replies filed by him and the ISI chief before the Supreme Court were not aimed against the government and were simply in response to the Court’s notice. But there were also conflicting reports that suggested that the army was furious with the government, particularly with the PM, who had questioned the legality of the affidavits submitted by the generals and that Gen Ashfaq Kayani had asked President Zardari to make the PM retract his remarks regarding the legal and constitutional violations committed by the generals. Although these reports were denied by the President’s spokesman, a comment by Prime Minister Gilani that he was not answerable to any individual but only to parliament seemed to worsen matters. There were also reports that the top military commanders had decided to stand behind the Supreme Court if it decided to take any strong action against the government.
Although the clouds of political turmoil having lifted a little after the two week breather given by the Supreme Court in the contempt case, it is perhaps a little premature to say that all is well between the army and the government. Three issues are likely to test the state of civil-military relations in the not too distant a future. The first is regarding the tenure of the ISI chief. The government has already indicated that it will not grant him another extension when his current term expires in March. The second is the petition filed by the sacked defence secretary Naeed Khalid Lodhi challenging his dismissal. And the third is the ‘memogate’ scandal which is hanging in balance. While the realisation that delving too deep into the memogate scandal will open up a can of worms that will damage all sides now appears to be sinking in, the judicial commission as well as the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) seem to be going about their ask, issuing notices and holding hearings. All eyes now are on whether or not the main protagonist, Mansoor Ijaz, comes to Pakistan. There is also the ticklish problem of evidence being collected especially after the ‘loss’ of Hussain Haqqani’s Blackberry phones and the refusal of RIM (the parent company of Blackberry) to entertain the request for call records by the judicial commission.
Meanwhile, the judicial commission investigating the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad released its report last week but expectedly enough failed to nail his murderers. The commission acknowledged the threats and intimidation of journalists by both state actors and non-state actors and recommended parliamentary oversight on the functioning of intelligence agencies like the ISI and IB to make them law-abiding. It also called for appointing a Human Rights ombudsman.
Even as the government tries to tackle the multiple crises, the main opposition party PMLN doesn't appear to be quite clear about its political strategy and is trying to ride on multiple boats. At one level, it is keeping up the pressure on the government and is weighing its options which when thought through seem to be non-options leaving it with only one option viz. swimming with the tide instead of trying to force the course of events. Last week the PMLN asked its supporters to choose between one of three options: en masse resignation; street protests; no confidence vote. The problem is all three are proving to be non-options. If the PMLN resigns en masse, it will leave the field open for the government to hold new elections and put a friendly leader of opposition in place which will allow it to pack the caretaker government and other constitutional offices which require consultation with the opposition leader with its own men. It simply doesn't have the numbers for a no confidence vote. And as for street protests, it neither has the appetite nor wants to risk the destabilisation that this will cause which in turn might bring in a military intervention.
Even as regards the army, the party is speaking in two voices: while Shahbaz Sharif demands an apology from the PM for his statements against the army, the party supremo Nawaz Sharif’s close associates have backed the PMs right to sack the defence secretary and said that there was no need for the PM to apologise to the army. The PMLN’s move to form an opposition alliance also doesn't seem to be receiving much traction for now, even less so after Imran Khan has made it clear that he will not engage with PMLN until it doesn't quit from the assemblies. Not surprisingly, despite making shrill noises against the government and threatening all sorts of action, the PMLN has quietly started preparing for the Senate elections (due on March 2) and by-elections to seats vacated by MNAs who have joined Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf. Muddying the waters further is the MQM which has tabled a constitutional amendment bill seeking to form a Hazara province and holding a referendum to form one or two provinces in South Punjab.
Amidst all the political manoeuvres, the former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf also tried to throw his hat into the ring and announced his return to Pakistan, only to postpone it once again after a few days. Perhaps the decision to postpone was the result of a clear message given by the army that he wasn’t welcome. Add to this the lack of support he received from other countries like US and Saudi Arabia and the fact that while the government declared that he would be imprisoned as soon as he landed in Pakistan, the family of the slain Baloch leader Akbar Bugti announced a Rs. 1 billion bounty on Musharraf.
Even as there is talk of negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban groups, the lull in the terrorist strikes seems to be coming to an end. In the last couple of weeks, there seems to be a sudden upsurge in terror attacks. Last week, a Shia procession was bombed in Rahimyar Khan district, killing around 20 people. There was also a fidayeen attack on the office of the district police chief in Dera Ismail Khan. Four attackers and four other persons, including two policemen died in that attack. Meanwhile there were unconfirmed reports that the TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud had been killed in a drone attack in North Waziristan week before last. The TTP has however denied these reports. At the same time the denial seemed somewhat cryptic because the TTP spokesman found it fit to say that since Mehsud is a human being he could die anytime and that the TTP wished him to attain martyrdom. In any case, the spokesman added, the ‘jihad’ wasn’t tied to Mehsud and would continue even if he died. The TTP also claimed the murder of a journalist from Mohmand agency working for the VOA and said that he was killed because he didn’t give them adequate coverage in the FM channel for which he also worked and warned similar action against other journalists.
Amidst reports of a crippling energy crisis in which around 4 million daily wagers in Punjab are estimated to be without work since thousands of factories have shut down because of suspension of gas supplies, finance minister Hafeez Shaikh has painted a somewhat optimistic picture of the economy which has been endorsed by the World Bank as well. According to Shaikh, growth will be around 4% this fiscal and inflationary pressures have already started to reduce. Exports are expected to cross the $ 25 billion mark despite an adverse international economic situation and remittances remain robust, growing by around 20% and expected to cross $ 12 billion. Importantly, the revenue figures are remarkably buoyant (rising by 27%) and are on target after the half year mark. Equally significant is the data on government expenditure which has been strictly controlled and is below 50% of the total allocated amount after six months. The subsidy bill however is way out of line with the budget figures and the power subsidy alone is 150% more than what was budgeted. The rosy picture painted by the finance minister doesn't however seem very credible and flies in the face of anecdotal evidence of mounting economic troubles.
Foreign Relations / Foreign Policy
In a sign of re-engagement, Afghanistan and Pakistan held a meeting of the Joint Economic Commission in Islamabad. The Afghans raised the issue of how the blockade of NATO supply lines is leading to stoppage of Afghan transit trade and has created food and other shortages in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis assured their Afghan counterparts that Afghan containers held up because of the blockade would soon be released. Pakistan also offered cooperation to Afghanistan in the field of roads, construction, mining and most interestingly, developing hydropower potential. Perhaps in a bid to counter India, Pakistan has offered to help Afghanistan build a hydropower plant on Kabul river. Until recently, Pakistan has been floating conspiracy theories on how India was planning to wage a water war on Pakistan by building dams in Afghanistan.
Relations between the US and Pakistan remained pretty much on a knife’s edge with both sides trying to work out a ‘new normal’ between them. While the US State Department adopted a more or less hands off approach on the political tussle in Pakistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did issue a statement backing the democratic setup in Pakistan and calling for resolving political differences in a transparent manner that upheld the law and constitution. More galling for the Pakistanis was a statement by the State Department spokesperson who during a ‘twitter briefing’ said in reply to a question on the situation in Balochistan that “the United States is deeply concerned about the ongoing violence in Balochistan, especially targeted killings, disappearances and other human rights abuses” and urged Pakistan to “lead and conduct a dialogue that takes the Balochistan issue forward”.
Pakistan, it seems, expressed its displeasure by letting the Americans know that it would not be convenient for them to receive the US Special Envoy for Afpak region, Marc Grossman who was visiting the region. Ostensibly, Grossman was asked not to come because Pakistan wanted to first compete the review on state of relations by Parliament which is soon going to deliberate over the recommendations of the PCNS. This was exactly the line taken by Pakistan’s new ambassador to US who after presenting her credentials to the US President said that the two countries will be able to reset their ties on ‘consistent, transparent and predictable lines’ after the parliamentary review. Meanwhile, the Defence Committee of the Cabinet met in Islamabad and decided to continue the blockade of NATO supply lines. The DCC rejected the US report on the Salala incident (the NATO bombing of two Pakistan Army posts in Mohmand agency killing 26 soldiers).
Relations with India
There are reports that Pakistan is all set to take the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to the International Court of Arbitration for having granted carbon credits to India for the Nimmo-Bazgo hydropower project on Indus river in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. An FIR has also reportedly been filed against the former Pakistani Indus Waters Commissioner for having acted as an ‘Indian agent’ and allowing India to construct the dam.
There are reports that as part of a plan to revive the Pakistan Railways, Pakistan could import locomotives from India under a dry lease plan. Meanwhile the Commerce Minister has justified the decision to move towards granting India MFN status and said that opening trade with India would increase the purchasing power of the Pakistani consumer in addition to making available a 300-500 million strong market for Pakistani manufacturers and traders.