Instead, Pakistan again defaulted to what is also becoming a familiar ritual. Having survived the forecast collapse, the government lurched closer to becoming the first-ever elected regime to finish its term. And public debate ensued about whether Pakistan is witnessing a veiled military power grab — or whether this coup-prone nation’s nascent democracy might be growing real roots.
“There is an enlarged democratic space,” said Raza Rumi, a newspaper columnist who counts himself among the optimists. “So this is an interesting moment. The government may or may not survive . . . but the assertion of the civilians is inspiring.”
The current political crises, involving a memo scandal and graft allegations, feature elements that have helped bring down previous civilian governments: avaricious politicians, baying opposition parties, pliant judges and a failing economy that is said to worry the generals.
But many analysts say the tools of past coups, such as tanks and state media blackouts, could not work in today’s Pakistan, where the news media and the judiciary have emerged as new power centers. That has given Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari surprising confidence to publicly challenge the army in what feels like a heavily watched bluffing game. One senior official in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, confidently said the party does not “see the chances of direct army intervention.”
The military, for starters, has its own problems. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, chief of the Army, has strived to restore the armed forces’ public image since a decade of military rule ended in 2008, but it has faced unprecedented domestic criticism after the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden. A resilient Islamist insurgency leaves generals little down time to manage the economy, said one military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
“The military is so overstretched and preoccupied fighting the militants,” said retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a prominent defense analyst. “It’s a full-time occupation.”
Influence today is spread more widely than in past eras, analysts say. In recent years, Pakistan has sprouted a slew of sensationalist and scrappy news outlets that, while generally rabidly anti-government, would be reluctant to endorse a uniformed regime that could corral their reach and profits. Parliament has become less deferential to the military, and the main opposition party, led by Nawaz Sharif, is no friend of the army, which overthrew him in 1999.