Conditions in Pakistan have been ripening, like the mango fruit eaten there, for another military coup d'etat. The economy has slumped, corruption is rampant, and terrorism is endemic. People are losing faith in the officials they brought to power.
This time, the soldiers may not have to use guns and tanks. They can bide their time until the elected government descends into chaos, then march in as national saviors. But the country's judiciary is swiftly becoming a player to be reckoned with too.
On December 16, Pakistan's Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional a National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). The NRO was an amnesty granted in October 2007 by former coup leader, and subsequently president, General Pervez Musharraf to politicians facing corruption and other criminal charges filed between January 1986 and October 1999. With that decision, all hell broke loose -- politically speaking.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik faces arrest by the National Accountability Bureau on corruption charges. Another potential defendant, Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, was barred by immigration and military officers -- who suggested they are no longer taking orders from elected politicians -- from leaving Pakistan on official business. Other leading members of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) too are now required to respond to corruption cases that are being reopened by the judiciary.
Seeking to reassert some measure of PPP authority, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani placed the interior minister and three immigration officers on administrative suspension for the airport incident involving Mukhtar -- an action decried as retaliation by opposition politicians.
The Generals Return
Even President Asif Ali Zardari faces the possibility of 12 corruption charges being reinstated. Worse, the Supreme Court has suggested that the government ask Switzerland to reopen a money-laundering investigation against him that was dropped on grounds of poor mental health.
Under Pakistani law, Zardari -- mocked as a highly corrupt "Mr. 10 Percent" -- cannot be prosecuted while he is president. But the calls for him to resign or be removed are mounting.
So are demands by political opponents and the general public that his inefficient administration be stripped of power. A cabinet reshuffle is unlikely to placate either his opponents or the general public. Even before the latest debacle, Zardari had ceded his presidential role in the nation's nuclear chain of command -- yet another sign of his ever-weakening authority.
Pakistan's military has regained some of its prestige through considerable success in recent combat against Islamic militants within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The generals remain one group -- the other is the judiciary -- seen as largely untainted by the political chaos that is engulfing the country. In recent months, they have been demonstrating their independence from the United States and loyalty to the nation of Pakistan by resisting demands to expand foreign involvement in counterinsurgency endeavors.
Not unexpectedly, the military once again faces mounting pressure to restore order in Pakistan, even at the expense of democracy.
Pakistan has experienced three coups d'etat since its creation as a nation-state in 1947. Four military leaders have run the country for 33 years -- or more than half its postindependence existence. Many among the entrepreneurial middle class and Westernized upper class regard the military as the most viable and stable national institution. So Pakistan's armed forces often are expected to lead the nation in times of political uncertainty.
As the generals remain silent, it is left to the government of President Zardari to deny the possibility of its ouster. Even if the civilian government survives the current legal crisis, it might not have long left in running Pakistan owing to the other mounting problems there. Zardari's administration has been reduced to threatening people for SMS texting jokes about its corruption with jail terms of up to 14 years.
Price of Realpolitik
All this complicates matters for the United States, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently declared "supporting democracy and fostering development are cornerstones of our 21st-century human rights agenda."
As Pakistan's primary ally and aid donor, the United States may indeed face the distinct prospect of having to deal directly yet again with a military leadership in a strategically important and nuclear-armed state. That relationship is already tense, owing to "issues that continue to fester," by the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense's own admission.
Yet the United States is in the midst of waging a war against terror there and across the border in Afghanistan that is "not only necessary but morally justified" as President Barack Obama said when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Hence, the U.S. government dares not suspend either military-technology or civilian aid lest it risk losing Pakistan's already somewhat-reluctant assistance.
So, despite its avowed aim of promoting democracy and human rights worldwide, the current U.S. administration may soon be stuck with having to accept an illegitimate Pakistani government led by generals trying to restore order. Such, if the past is an accurate indicator, will be the hefty price of realpolitik for both Pakistan and the United States.
Not all comes up tails, however. In late July, Pakistan's Supreme Court declared illegal an earlier state of emergency declared by the military. It is likely to do so again. An increasingly independent judiciary bodes well for democracy in Pakistan -- over the long term.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Central Eurasian, Indian, Iranian, Islamic, and international studies and former director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL