Pakistan army chief demands removal of Zardari loyalists from cabinet
Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has handed a list of corrupt or allegedly incompetent ministers to President Asif Ali Zardari, demanding their removal, according to western and Pakistani officials.
The tension between Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders is the latest political fallout from historic floods that have triggered stringent criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis.
Much of the controversy centres on Zardari, who brought scorn on himself by visiting a family chateau in France as the floods gathered pace in August – a move advisers admit was a public relations disaster.
A senior western official confirmed reports that the army chief had asked the president to remove named loyalists from his 60-member cabinet as part of an internal reform process. The official did not give the requested names.
Analysts said the army stance reflected a broader public impatience with the government’s performance. An opinion poll taken last July gave Zardari a 20% popularity rating.
“The way things are configured now, everyone – the army, the institutions, the man on the street – would like to see some kind of shakeup in the current government,” said Cyril Almeida of Dawn.com.
But he added: “I don’t think it will work. The more pressure you pile on Zardari, the more likely he is to dig in his heels.”
Over the past week the country’s political classes have been seized by a wave of rumours about an army intervention in politics, ranging from the installation of a Bangladesh-style technocratic government, to the removal of Zardari, to a straightforward coup.
A close Zardari aide denied that the army was pressuring the government. “It’s absolute rubbish. This is a rumour-driven crisis, driven by those with a pathological hatred of president Zardari and the PPP. They have been predicting his downfall from the day he was elected. And they have been wrong,” he said.
Some of the tension was punctured on Monday after Zardari and the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, met the army chief, General Kayani, after which they released an anodyne statement about flood relief.
Osama bin Laden waded into the debate yesterday, criticising relief efforts in Pakistan and calling for action against climate change.
Describing the plight of Pakistanis after the floods, he said:”Millions of children are out in the open air, lacking basic elements of living, including drinking water, resulting in their bodies shedding liquids and subsequently their death.”
Zardari’s woes are complicated by the hostility he faces from the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Few see it as a coincidence that the supreme court this week resurrected its efforts to have Swiss authorities prosecute Zardari on corruption charges.
Talk of a coup, however, seems unlikely. The army is still smarting from the damage to its reputation caused by the rule of General Pervez Musharraf, who is now plotting a political comeback.
And there is little appetite for unconstitutional change from British and US officials. Two senior diplomats said that, flawed as the Zardari government was, the preferred course of action was for the present government to see out its five-year term. It has so far served two and a half years.
“That’s the only way to bring long-term stability,” said one official.
Zardari’s aide said reports of army interference were exaggerated. “They have a legitimate input into national security. But to their credit the leadership have been very careful in nurturing democracy this time.”
Almeida said: “Anyone trying to change the political setup in Pakistan has to look at two things: the cost of that change, and what you will replace it with.
“Right now they can’t come up with a good answer to either of those. The cost of removing Zardari is too high.”