Ominous turf war between Pakistani state institutions

A paramilitary soldier patrols outside the Supreme Court building in Islamabad (December 30, 2011)
Image caption Pakistan's Supreme Court is investigating an anonymous government memo

Pakistan's political scene looks like the OK Corral, with the main organs of state and other players heading for an inglorious showdown.

In the past few weeks, the powerful military has heaped pressure on the civilian government by participating in a Supreme Court inquiry which could see President Zardari condemned as a "traitor".

The government has retaliated by accusing the military top brass of flouting the rules of business. It has warned them against setting up a "state within the state".

For its part, the Supreme Court appears to have thrown its weight behind the military, recently questioning the honesty of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. It wants corruption cases against hundreds of politicians, including the president, reopened.

The prime minister and the president have publicly said their government does not intend to implement some of the court's decisions, which they see as politically motivated.

This ominous turf war between the top state institutions is taking place at a time when numerous opposition groups are shuffling to gain a foothold in the run-up to general elections, due in early 2013 but likely to be held before then.

After 15 years of dabbling in politics without making an impression, cricket legend Imran Khan has suddenly started attracting massive crowds to his public rallies - a tsunami, he says, which will wash away all the "corrupt politicians and plunderers".

Also returning to the fray is former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who has been in self-imposed exile for the past four years. He is due back in the country some time in late January despite facing arrest in various criminal cases.

'War economy'

With all this happening, Pakistan appears to be heading into a period of massive confusion which many believe could translate either into a stronger parliamentary democracy or a total collapse of the system.

Image caption The former cricketer Imran Khan has been attracting large crowds to his rallies

Although Pakistan inherited strong democratic traditions, successive military coups, often backed by a weak and compliant judiciary, have weakened its democratic institutions and undermined the credibility of its politicians.

Successive military regimes, or governments controlled by the military, have promoted gun culture and a militarised society, and created conditions for what many experts describe as a "war economy".

Despite the history of coups, most observers think another one is unlikely at the moment, however.

Instead, the military are thought to prefer to let the Supreme Court use "constitutional" methods to go after the government.

The present democratic administration has survived longer than any other in Pakistani history, and that probably explains why the confrontation between the institutions has assumed such alarming proportions.

After being sworn in in 2008, the government tried to bring the military and its ISI intelligence service under civilian control, but had to retreat.

Tensions with the military resurfaced after the 2 May killing of Osama Bin Laden by US forces in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. Some political groups called for top military officials to be sacked for failing to detect both Bin Laden's presence in Pakistan and the raid by US special forces to kill him.

Image caption President Zardari (left) and PM Gilani have been in power since 2008

These simmering tensions spilled into the open over a memo seeking US military help to avert a possible coup in Pakistan in the wake of Bin Laden's death.

The government points to the fact that the memo is unsigned and officials deny President Zardari had anything to do with it.

Unclear future

The present stand-off is a direct result of the divergence of views of the military and the civilian government on the memo issue.

These are unprecedented developments in Pakistani history. And as old and new players jump onto the political scene, what happens next remains unclear.

If the government continues to resist the Supreme Court, will the judiciary call in the army, which it can do under the constitution, to implement its decisions?

If it does, will the army - already in confrontational mode with the government - make a move?

The government's choices appear clear. If it allows itself to be booted out and its leaders thrown in jail, it will wash off the stigma of bad governance, corruption and economic mismanagement for which it has been criticised throughout its tenure.

But if it survives the crisis, it will emerge as the first ever civilian government to have established the supremacy of parliament over other state institutions.

Observers say pressure is growing to topple the government before Senate elections in March in which Mr Zardari's party is expected to win a majority in the upper house.

A lot will depend on how the different institutions, and various groups within parliament, play their cards over the coming days and weeks.