Pakistan founded as democracy in 1947, but the military has intervened during crisis
Nation suffers from faltering economy, widespread poverty, corruption, conflict with militants
Analysts: Vibrant media, independent judiciary may deter coup threat
The army also has better options than a coup, say experts
Pakistan is facing its most serious political crisis in years, with rapidly escalating conflicts between the civilian government, the military and the judiciary, against the backdrop of a faltering economy, widespread poverty, corruption and the bloody war with Islamist militant groups.
The country was founded in 1947 as a democracy, but in times of crisis the army – Pakistan’s most powerful institution – has overthrown the civilian government on the grounds that the leadership had been unfit and corrupt.
Rumors of another coup have been swirling around the current crisis – but analysts say a military takeover is highly unlikely this time around. Here are five reasons why:
1. The people won’t support a military take over
Pakistanis support a strong military for defense and security-related issues, but analysts say a history of failed military dictators has sapped much of the public’s confidence in the army’s ability to solve Pakistan’s political problems.
The reigns of military leaders like Generals Ayub Khan, Zia Ul Haq, and, most recently, Pervez Musharraf, were plagued by accusations of corruption and ineffective leadership.
“It has become far more difficult for a military takeover to take place because of public opinion,” says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the head of Pakistan’s Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency, an Islamabad-based political think thank.
“There is a strong consensus against a military takeover among the Pakistani people. Right now, all the public criticism is aimed at the civilian government. If the military takes over, the criticism will be directed at the military and that’s something they don’t want.”
Retired army Major General Jamshed Ayaz Khan says the Pakistani people are fed up with current civilian leadership, but they don’t think the army is the answer.
“They don’t want to go back to an old system that has never worked,” he says.
2. A vibrant Pakistani news media is watching
One of Pakistan’s internationally less-known features is its fiery and remarkably free news media that acts as this fragile democracy’s watchdog. A free press is only a decade-old concept in Pakistan but it has already emerged as a powerful player in Pakistani politics.
At most hours of the day, Pakistanis can watch any one of dozens of 24-hour news networks, analyze the current political situation with reporters who hound politicians and catch up with newscasts that feature screaming debates and gaudy visual effects designed to make viewers stop and watch.
It’s not all positive news: Six journalists were killed in 2006, according to the Pakistan Press Foundation. Meanwhile the activist group Reporters Without Borders calls Pakistan one of the most dangerous places for journalists, with news personnel often being intimidated in the course of their work.
Still, analysts say, the army will be answerable to the media in case of a coup. “The media is a big factor,” says Mehboob. “We have already seen how the media is strongly questioning some of the actions taken by the military. If the military stages a coup there will be far more criticism from the media than any time in the past.”
3. An independent judiciary is watching
In previous coups, Pakistan’s military leaders have managed to strong-arm Pakistan’s judiciary into supporting army takeovers. Analysts say Pakistan’s current judiciary – led by a chief justice who was suspended in 2007 by Musharraf but later reinstated – won’t back down from a confrontation with the army.
“The Supreme Court used to lend legitimacy to such efforts by the military, but that’s no longer available to the army,” Mehboob tells CNN.
4. Pakistan’s allies won’t support a coup
Foreign powers, like the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, hold considerable influence over Pakistan because of economic, political and military support. That’s in spite of high tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan in recent months, following the American raid into Pakistan in May 2011 that killed Osama bin laden.
Still, analysts say, Pakistan’s allies would view a military coup as destabilizing to the region and threatening to the fragile peace process in Afghanistan.
“The U.S. is watching and they don’t want a military takeover in Pakistan,” says Khan. “I think they’ll step in to do all they can to convince the army a coup is not the answer.”
5. The army has better options than a coup
Much of the speculation about a possible coup stems from the perception that the army’s leadership doesn’t like Pakistani President Azif Ali Zardari and wants him out.
Tensions between Zardari and the army escalated after the Memogate scandal – an allegation that the government sent a secret memo to Washington calling for help to curb the military’s power, an accusation the government denies.
Analysts say that if the army wants Zardari out, then there are safer and more practical options than a coup.
The Supreme Court is investigating Memogate and pushing for the government to pursue old corruption charges against Zardari. A ruling against the president would leave him too isolated to hold on to power, analysts say.
Another option would be for the army to behave like the armed forces of a democracy by waiting for next year’s elections and letting the Pakistani people decide Zardari’s fate with their votes.