General trouble

General trouble

Speculation over a rift between Pakistan’s civilian government and the military has been confirmed by prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s excoriating criticism of the military.

He has accused the military of ‘conspiracies’ to ‘pack up’ the elected government and of acting as a ‘state within a state.’ Civil-military relations in Pakistan, never calm, hit turbulence some weeks ago over the ‘Memogate crisis.’

In the wake of president Asif Ali Zardari’s departure from the country ostensibly for medical treatment, strong rumours of an impending coup were unleashed. Gilani’s scathing remarks on the military last week – he questioned the Army’s failure to detect Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan -- indicate that his government has no intention of going down without a fight. Analysts have observed that this is the first time that a civilian government in Pakistan has been so outspoken in its criticism of the military.

General Kayani has responded by expressing support for a democratic Pakistan. While his assurance is welcome it is unlikely to calm fears in Pakistan. Pakistan’s generals are notorious for their political ambitions. But, the military is a discredited institution in the eyes of the Pakistani people today.  General Musharraf’s rule, his reluctance to step aside in the wake of mass protests and the military’s failure in the years since to tackle terror outfits has left it with few supporters in Pakistan.

Pakistan today has a powerful civil society, which is unlikely to sit by quietly should the generals stage a coup. If the military does step in, mass protests similar to those that ousted authoritarian regimes in the Arab world over the past year will sweep across Pakistan. Pakistan’s generals must bear in mind that the country’s civil society has defeated military rulers several times in the past.

However, a discredited military does not mean that all is well between the Gilani government and the Pakistani people. The large turnout at public rallies held by Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan in recent weeks should serve as a warning to Zardari and Gilani. Public disillusionment with the ruling party is mounting and Khan could ride to power on that wave.

The Pakistan People’s Party government will have to pull up its socks and improve performance.

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