The Pakistani military issued a press release Wednesday criticizing remarks that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani made to China's People's Daily Online. Pakistan's Supreme Court is probing allegations that the civilian government sent a memo seeking U.S. assistance to reverse the military's domination over the state. In an interview with the newspaper, Gilani had said the chief of the country's army, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, and the head of the country's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, acted unconstitutionally in statements they submitted to the court. The statement from the military's public relations directorate warned that Gilani's comments to the Chinese newspaper entailed "very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country."
On the same day, Gilani fired the Defense Ministry's senior-most bureaucrat — a retired three-star general with close ties to military leadership — accusing him of "gross misconduct" and illegal action.
These two events, the latest in a standoff between the country's civilian and military leaders that began when the memo controversy surfaced last October, are being read internationally as signs that the military is working once again to force a civilian government out of office. Since Pakistan's first coup in 1958 — a mere 11 years after independence — three more have followed, in 1969, 1977 and 1999, and have ushered in long periods of military rule. Even during the longest period of civilian rule, from 1988 to 1997, the security establishment constitutionally ousted three elected governments, in 1990, 1993 and 1996.
Considering that history, it is not unusual that the military would try to get rid of the current government. That said, much has changed since the last coup, which brought former Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to power a little more than 12 years ago. Since that time, it has been difficult for the military to dispose of a government it does not like. The proliferation of private media and rise of civil society during Musharraf's rule, the popular uprising that helped bring about the military dictator's fall from power, and the judiciary's emergence as a power center have greatly complicated matters for Pakistan's military-intelligence complex.
The current military leadership knows that present domestic and international circumstances make a classic coup unviable. And at any rate, the military does not wish to seize power and with it inherit the responsibility for addressing the social, economic and security issues plaguing the country. The military would much rather see the government ousted through constitutional means.
The constitutional option is also not presently viable. In the past, the military would align with the presidency and opposition parties in parliament to counter the government. But Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari leads the ruling Pakistan People's Party. And while opposition parties in parliament would like to reap the benefits of a weakened ruling party, they are unwilling to see the army gain the upper hand.
That leaves the Supreme Court, which has taken a clear stance against the civilian administration and is pressing the president and others in the government on corruption charges.
However, even a Supreme Court ruling against it would not necessarily bring about the government's ouster. For that to happen, parliament needs to vote down both the prime minister and the president — and the arithmetic of such a theoretical vote right now favors the ruling party. So even as it retains a great deal of power, the military cannot oust governments as easily as it has done in the past.
Even if the government is forced to call early elections and is unable to complete the term set to expire in about a year, a shift in the civil-military power dynamic is undeniably in the making in Pakistan. Given the historical trend, the military will not become subordinate to civilians anytime soon — while the country's political parties have yet to demonstrate they are a coherent lot capable of effective governance. That said, the military's ability to dominate the polity is no longer what it once was.