Unrest and Political Uncertainty Pakistan Tumbles into Chaos
A self-proclaimed revolutionary is attracting mass protests, while the highest court has ordered the prime minister's arrest and the military waits in the wings. Pakistan is in the grips of a major political upheaval.
The contrast between the images couldn't be any more striking. In Islamabad, people could be seen celebrating in front of the parliament building. Men patted each other on the shoulder and hopped around in circles. Women waved green flags emblazoned with the white crescent symbol and sang. "Nizam Badlo!" they call out repeatedly. "Change the System!" They had convened to celebrate Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, a government critic and their self-proclaimed revolutionary leader, and the decision made by the country's Supreme Court to allow the arrest of Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on suspicion of corruption and nepotism.
But television stations also broadcasted images from many other parts of the country, where instead of celebrations one could see angry crowds protesting Ashraf's arrest. Some are rioting, and in Karachi people could be seen firing their guns into the air. Others are cursing Tahir-ul-Qadri, who they accuse of not having any respect for the government or the Pakistani people, who voted for the current leaders democratically during elections in spring 2008.
Pakistan currently finds itself in a state of crisis. The nuclear power is facing a test that it doesn't appear capable of withstanding. In any case, the country will be facing a national election this spring, by May at the latest. If those elections take place, this will mark the first time in the country's 66-year history that a democratically elected government has survived for an entire term to be succeeded by another democratic government. Ostensibly, it would make no sense for a revolutionary leader to demand the "immediate resignation" of the acting government.
Chaos Could Benefit Military
The reason is that the current situation is very much to the taste of a military that has lost both influence and standing since the end of General Pervez Musharraf's military dictatorship five years ago. The assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 by US soldiers in the northern city of Abbottabad, only a few hundred meters away from the military academy, was humiliating. And although the armed forces publicly criticized the drone attacks conducted by the United States, they drew criticism for not doing anything to stop them and even secretly tolerating the air strikes.
For decades, the military had been indisputably the most powerful force in the country. It was far more than an institution that could defend the country. The armed forces interfered with politics and had installed the country's leader for half of Pakistan's history. They controlled large swathes of the economy influenced most important decisions made in the country -- from the appointment of important diplomatic posts to the operations of the state owned airline PIA.
A growing number of people are questioning the need for such a large, expensive and omnipotent military. The army alone has 620,000 soldiers. In a striking appearance last year, army chief General Parvez Ashfaq Kayani, who still appears to be the country's most-powerful man, conceded for the first time in Pakistani history that it is no longer external threats but domestic terror that present the greatest danger to his country. Until then, the specter of arch-enemy India had always been raised to justify the massive military's existence.
How Likely Is a Putsch?
It would actually be to military's advantage if things were to become violent, because it could justify a military intervention for the preservation of public order. And despite planned elections, it would also be in the interest of the military officers to force the current government into the corner. "If the situation escalates, we will of course consider possible action in the interest of national security," one high-ranking officer at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi who asked not to be identified told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Pakistan's chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, has been waging his own battle against President Asif Ali Zardari for years now. The two can't stand each other, and Chaudhry is also seen as a man with his sights set on greater power. Six months ago, the Supreme Court he leads dismissed Prime Minister Ashraf's predecessor from office because he had stood in the way of anti-corruption efforts against Zardari. Although the justices and generals haven't exactly been sympathetic towards each other in recent months, they have appeared determined to spoil any kind of orderly departure for the current government.
The corruption allegations against Ashraf are old and the case has been working its way through the courts for some time now. "But from the timing, it looks like this was agreed upon," says Islamabad-based Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui.
But most observers consider it unlikely that any military putsch will take place. The last coup, which brought Musharraf to power, happened almost 14 years ago. Since then, a strong civil society has taken root and many TV stations and newspapers have been established whose power in forming public opinion is even feared by the military. "I don't think the military can afford a putsch," says Siddiqui. The more likely scenario is that a government filled with technocrats would be established with the general's implicit support.
A Country with Tremendous Problems
The criticism of the current, democratic government is fully justified. For most Pakistanis, the situation has deteriorated since its election. Food prices have risen dramatically, while electricity, natural gas and gasoline supplies have grown scarcer. An increasing number of people can't afford a second daily meal, and others are freezing because they have no heating gas. The country also faces other tremendous problems, like terrorism, violence against religious minorities, the increasing radicalization of many parts of society, disputes with the country's unstable neighbor Afghanistan, a violent power struggle in the port city of Karachi, water shortages and natural disasters like earthquakes and floods.
Given this bleak situation, it doesn't bother the Pakistanis too much that Tahir-ul-Qadri may have the military's backing -- even if he disputes this. For many in the country, the idea that a military government would be better than the democracy they have experienced so far would be met with approval. Nor does it seem to bother them than that he gives bizarre speeches in which he praises the country's blasphemy laws before turning right around and preaching a liberal Islam and promises that he would adhere to democratic principles. Then, again, he says he wants to send the democratically elected government packing. He is constantly contradicting himself.
Desperation over living conditions and anger over the corrupt government are considerable enough that people would be willing to swallow a lot. The most important thing for most is that their quality of life improves in the future. Nobody knows who can ensure that -- neither those who want a "revolution" nor those who are protesting the prime minister's arrest. Everything is possible at this point. A peaceful and smooth transition might still be possible -- or the country could slide into lasting turmoil.