x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pakistan president seeks support from parliament

The weakened Pakistani government needs the backing of opposition parties as it struggles to assert its authority over the powerful military.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, returned from an overnight visit to Dubai yesterday as his ruling party's government moved to bolster support from parliament with a resolution that it said would "strengthen democracy".

The weakened government needs the backing of opposition parties as it struggles to assert its authority over the powerful military, and has called for a vote of support in parliament on Monday.

On Wednesday the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, sacked the defence secretary hours after army commanders rebuked him for what they claimed were his sustained attacks on the military leadership, saying such remarks could have "grievous consequences for the country".

The military's warning prompted the government to mobilise support from political parties, and yesterday an ally of Mr Zardari introduced a resolution in parliament calling for "full confidence and trust" in the political leadership.

Parliamentary sources, however, said the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party was forced to tone down the resolution after allies refused to support any move that could lead to confrontation with the army.

"We are not seeking your support to save us from the army," Mr Gilani told the opposition members while addressing the National Assembly, parliament's lower house. "We have come to you [for support] … We have brought this resolution neither to confront judiciary nor the army but to strengthen democracy."

Tensions between the government and the army have been on the rise since October, when Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States and Mr Zardari's close confidante, was accused of drafting a memo that sought Washington's help to prevent a possible coup. The opposition says the unsigned memo was sent to the US Admiral Mike Mullen at Mr Zardari's behest.

Both Mr Zardari and Mr Haqqani have denied any connection with the memo, which the army says was a threat to national security.

Pakistan's Supreme Court, which is seen as an ally of the army, last week opened an investigation into the memo controversy, dubbed "memogate" in the Pakistani media.

Separately, the court this week warned Mr Gilani that he could be disqualified from holding office if he continued to defy its orders to reopen old corruption cases against Mr Zardari. Government legal aides say Mr Zardari cannot be prosecuted because of presidential immunity.

Analysts and politicians say the government might opt for early elections if the row persisted. Elections are already scheduled for 2013.

"I'm telling you election will be held this year and not next year," said Zahid Khan, a member of parliament that is part of the ruling coalition partner.

Mr Gilani has hinted that he might opt for early polls "if the situation worsened". He last month warned that conspiracies were being hatched to bring down the government, prompting the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, to issue a statement denying that the military was planning a coup.

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that officials in the UK and Islamabad said that Mr Gilani called a British diplomat this week to help stop a coup attempt. Mr Gilani and UK officials quickly denied the report, which was based on anonymous sources.

Analysts have said the military was unlikely to stage a coup because it is fighting a growing Islamist insurgency.

The military has ruled Pakistan for most of its 64 years of existence. None of the previous civilian governments had been able to complete their five-year terms, although the current government has survived longer than others.

Mr Gilani yesterday called for a meeting today of the cabinet's defence committee, the highest decision-making body on defence and security issues, which will be attended by Gen Kayani. Analysts say the session could be an attempt to ease tensions with the army.