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Is Pakistan heading for another coup?

December 18, 2009 12:41 IST

The verdict of the Pakistan Supreme Court, which struck down the constitutional amnesty granted to senior leaders over corruption charges against them on Wednesday, has plunged the country into political chaos.

The scrapping of the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance has sent several top politicians of the country scurrying for cover, as the National Accountability Bureau, the anti-corruption watchdog, geared up to reopen hundreds of corruption cases against top figures in the ruling Pakistan People's Party-led government.

The NAB is likely to revive arrest warrants against some of them and freeze their assets. Acting on a request by the NAB, the Interior Ministry has put all 246 members named by the anti-corruption agency on the Exit Control List. Ironically, Interior Minister Rehman Malik himself is on the list, and has been barred from leaving the country.

Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, one of the beneficiaries of the graft amnesty, was barred by authorities from traveling to China on an official visit today.

The NRO, which was quashed by the apex court on Wednesday, was introduced by dictator-turned-President Pervez Musharraf in 2007. It was actively backed by the administrations in United Kingdom and United States to facilitate the return of PPP chief Benazir Bhutto to the country.

However, Bhutto was assassinated in November 2007. But the Pakistan government closed corruption cases against Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari and several of his top aides under the NRO, paving the way for the latter to become Pakistan's president in September 2008.

Zardari has faced charges of massive corruption since many years and has already spent almost 11 years behind bars on related charges. He was nicknamed 'Mr 10 per cent', amid allegations that he pocketed commissions on government contracts, and according to unofficial estimated by the NAB, the Pakistan president is worth a whopping $1.5 billion.

Though he managed to lead the party to an impressive victory in the 2008 general election, Zardari's popularity has plunged to new lows in the last few months, and his government is often perceived as being weak and ineffective in tackling issues like corruption and a declining economy. He has also been criticised for his obvious penchant for foreign visits.

The Opposition parties have joined forces and demanded Zardari's resignation, who enjoys presidential immunity. Zardari has stoutly refused to do step down, stating, "We will tackle the challenges with courage. We have witnessed the NRO-like crisis in the past and we are also ready to cope with today's situation, but we will not allow anyone to derail democracy in the country."

The court's order will also put immense pressure on Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who will have to contemplate removing the tainted ministers from his cabinet, but continue to take orders from a president who faces similar charges.

While the president's opponents claimed that he had lost the moral authority to govern the nation and he should immediately resign, his close aides claimed that it was a ploy by the country's powerful military to 'derail' the ongoing democratic process.

Certain influential elements in the army were trying to use the apex court's order to oust Zardari, they said. The country's shaky government feels perpetually threatened by the powerful military, which has ruled Pakistan for nearly half of its 62-year-old existence, and several democratically-elected governments have been ousted by coups by the army.

Though army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has repeatedly claimed that he has no intentions of joining politics, the wary government is apprehensive that the military might step in if the country heads towards political anarchy.

The Pakistan Muslim League-led government, headed by prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was toppled in a bloodless coup by Musharraf in 1998.

"It's chaos out there. Nobody knows what's going on. Everyone is trying to work out the ramifications of the court order," a senior Pakistani journalist told The Gaurdian newspaper.

Pakistan's latest political crisis comes amidst the government's unsuccessful attempts to battle extremists, who have unleashed a wave of terror strikes targeting government officials, security forces and United Nations offices across the country.

Zardari is also facing pressure from the United States, which recently urged the Pakistan government to launch an offensive to flush out Afghan Taliban in country's border areas.

The Rediff News Bureau in Mumbai