Pakistan at a crossroads, again
For democracy to take root, the Zardari government must be allowed to complete its five-year term

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A Pakistani security personnel stands alert at a check-post at Akakhel Area.

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  • In #Pakistan's 64-year history, power has never changed hands purely by the ballot @dhume01

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  • If a loose grouping of generals, judges and opposition politicians gets its way, #Pakistan's sorry pattern could repeat itself

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  • Whatever their frustrations, Pakistanis need to be wary of a cure that's worse than the disease

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Who gets to decide when a democratically elected government's time is up? To the average Japanese, Indian or American, the answer is obvious: the same people who voted it into office in the first place. Not so for the average Pakistani.

In the country's 64-year history, power has never changed hands purely by the ballot. The army, working alone or in tandem with sympathetic civilians, hasn't let any elected leader finish his term, thanks to which democracy has failed to seep into the country's foundations. Now, if a loose grouping of generals, judges and opposition politicians gets its way, this sorry pattern could repeat itself.

At stake is the fate of the nearly four-year-old Pakistan Peoples Party government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. Though the government enjoys a majority in parliament, outside powerful forces have coalesced against it. The Supreme Court is aggressively pursuing corruption charges against Mr. Zardari. The government has called for a vote of confidence in parliament, most likely to shore up political support ahead of a court ruling.

This recent spike in instability began late last year as the Supreme Court began investigating the "memogate" scandal. This involves a secret letter delivered to then-U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen shortly after the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden last May. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to the U.S., is accused of secretly proposing to dilute army control of national security in return for American help in warding off a coup. Mr. Haqqani denies any involvement in the memo affair.

Events seemed to snowball into a crisis last week when the army publicly warned the government of "serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences," after Mr. Gilani told China's People's Daily Online that the army leadership had acted unconstitutionally by making submissions to the court's memogate inquiry without government approval. Meanwhile, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, widely believed to have the tacit backing of the generals, warned the government of a "tsunami march" of protestors should it disregard a Supreme Court decision that could, among other possibilities, dismiss Mr. Zardari.

To be sure, many Pakistanis have good reason to wish to see the back of their unpopular president. Some regard Mr. Zardari as the undeserving beneficiary of a sympathy vote in 2008 following the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Mr. Zardari has never shaken a reputation for sticky fingers—when his wife was in power he was dubbed Mr. 10%. He denies any wrongdoing. Perhaps the defining image of Mr. Zardari's presidency was a 2010 visit to his chateau in Normandy while floods deluged much of Pakistan. Neither Mr. Zardari nor Mr. Gilani is about to win any awards for good governance.

As for the memo scandal, the accusation that the government was willing to barter away national sovereignty to cling to power has further wounded the president. Though the charges are unproven and though some question the credibility of the chief accuser, Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, many believe that Mr. Haqqani is guilty—and by extension, Mr. Zardari as well.

Yet, whatever their frustrations, Pakistanis need to be wary of a cure that's worse than the disease. Simply put, the costs to the country of yet another government turfed out prematurely—whether by the courts or the army—far outweigh any benefits. How can democracy be expected to take root when undemocratic forces yank it out of the ground every few years?

Pakistanis must also understand that none of the main protagonists in this drama can credibly claim to be placing national interests over parochial ones. The Supreme Court has gone out of its way to target Mr. Zardari and Mr. Haqqani while ignoring older cases. Don't hold your breath for the good justices to investigate the role of the army's Inter-Services Intelligence in influencing national elections, or claims that the ISI canvassed Middle Eastern countries to support a coup last summer. And then there's the mystery of why the world's most wanted terrorist was comfortably ensconced a stone's throw from Pakistan's premier military academy in Abbottabad.

Over six decades the army has perfected the art of dressing up self-interest as patriotism. In most democratic countries, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and the spymaster Gen. Pasha would have been sacked long ago for incompetence or insubordination. No institution has done more to dilute Pakistan's sovereignty, tarnish its reputation by backing terrorism, or slow down development by devouring the lion's share of the national budget. In that sense, Gens. Kayani and Pasha follow a long tradition of Pakistani military officers better at political intrigue than at fighting either enemies abroad or terrorists within.

Pakistan once again finds itself at a crossroads where it can choose between strengthening democracy and perpetuating the malign influence of a politicized army. At this point, those baying for Mr. Zardari's blood ought to remember one simple fact: that the democratic process is more important than a single individual.

 

If the current government is allowed to complete its term, and elections held on schedule in 2013, the country will pass an important milestone on the road to genuine democracy. If not, we have to expect even more turmoil from what is already dubbed the most dangerous place on earth.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI

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