ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - President Asif Ali Zardari’s ruling party lobbied coalition partners on Friday for a vote of support as the government faces the most intense pressure from the powerful military since a 1999 coup.
One of Zardari’s allies introduced a resolution in parliament which places “full confidence and trust” in the political leadership of the nuclear-armed South Asian state.
The National Assembly will debate the confidence motion on Monday and the government hopes for a vote next week.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was cautious, saying the purpose of the move was not an attack on the military, which has ruled the country for more than half of its 64-year history through a series of coups, and from behind the scenes.
A disputed memo allegedly from Zardari’s government seeking U.S. help in reining in the generals soured relations between the civilian leadership and the military, pushing them to their lowest point since the last military coup in 1999.
While another takeover is unlikely, the open hostilities will reinforce the view that Pakistan’s leaders are caught up in power struggles so often that they are incapable of running a country facing enormous social, security and economic problems.
The latest crisis also troubles Washington, which wants smooth ties between civilian and military leaders so that Pakistan can help efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan, a top priority for President Barack Obama.
Some coalition partners of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) warned that Zardari and his allies should not push the military too hard, fearing further upheaval in the South Asian nation facing a Taliban insurgency of its own.
“We will support any such resolution as it will be a move to strengthen democracy in the country, but it will be difficult for us to support any resolution which targets any state institution,” said a member of parliament from a major coalition ally of the PPP.
Gilani was similarly cautious.
“The resolution we mentioned, its purpose is absolutely not that we are against any institution,” he told parliament in a speech televised live. “It absolutely does not mean we are bringing this against the military.”
Gilani’s office denied a report on Friday that the prime minister this week called the British High Commissioner in Islamabad, expressing concerns that the army might be about to mount a coup, and asking for London to support the government.
An official at the high commission also denied the report.
In a BBC radio interview, British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed doubts about any return to the days of coups as that would damage Pakistan’s struggling economy and image.
“There is a greater determination (than) in the past both among some of the military leaders and certainly among the democratically-elected political leaders that that mustn’t happen again,” he said.
Zardari, however, may take more risks.
The president, close aides say, wants to be remembered as the leader who worked harder than any other to promote civilian rule in Pakistan and loosen the military’s hold on power.
“He is stubborn and headstrong, with a strong sense of street politics,” a senior PPP member told Reuters.
“And he has a desire for a legacy as the man who finally got the ballot box to prevail.”
No civilian government has ever served out its full five-year term in Pakistan. Pakistan’s next general election is due by 2013. Legislators will elect a new president, a largely ceremonial post, after that ballot.
Zardari, who wields considerable influence as the head of the ruling party, also may have concluded the military will not have the stomach for another coup.
“They (Zardari and his allies) are on the offensive, because they think they have the upper hand,” Rifaat Hussain, a professor at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
Military sources say that, while they would like Zardari to go, it should be through constitutional means, not another overthrow that would tarnish Pakistan’s democracy further.
While analysts say the military would be capable of pulling off a coup, several factors prevent it from doing so.
The army’s image was badly damaged by the unilateral U.S. raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May last year.
The discovery that bin Laden may have been living for years in a Pakistani town not far from intelligence headquarters in the capital infuriated U.S. officials, hurting the military’s position with their traditional American backers.
And few generals want to repeat the mistakes made by Pakistan’s last military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president in disgrace in 2008 to avoid impeachment for violating the constitution.
The military sets foreign and security policy, even when civilians are in power, so it needs a major reason, such as a threat to its fundamental interests, to justify a coup.
The military is also reluctant to take power and assume responsibility for a host of problems such as a weak economy, widespread poverty and power shortages that would open it up to public criticism.
That doesn’t mean Zardari is safe.
Aware of their limitations, Pakistan’s generals seem to have pinned their hopes on the Supreme Court to pull the rug from under the president, who they see as corrupt and inept.
The Supreme Court has set up a commission to investigate “memogate”. If a link is established with Zardari, he could face impeachment proceedings.
The Court has also threatened to go after the government if it does not act on corruption cases against Zardari.
“The military has decided not to act, because the government is already in trouble with the Supreme Court, which could disqualify senior government officials,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
“It is quite prudent on the part of the military.”
Additional reporting by Chris Allbritton in ISLAMABAD, Faisal Aziz in KARACHI and Adrian Croft in LONDON; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Ron Popeski