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Asia-Pacific

Is Pakistan's military plotting a coup?

media President Asif Ali Zardari prays at the gave of his wife Benazir Bhutto … Reuters/Nadeem Soomro

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told parliament Friday that it had to choose democracy or dictatorship, as his tried to face down the army and the Supreme Court. Is Pakistan heading for a military coup? And, whether it is or isn’t, is Gilani’s government under threat?

Monday could be crunch day for Pakistan. Parliament will vote on a motion of confidence in the government tabled by a junior partner in the ruling coalition. And the government will give evidence to the Supreme Court in a highly sensitive corruption case and to a special commission on the Memogate scandal.

Dossier: AfPak news and analysis

"Now we have to decide whether we should have democracy or dictatorship in this country,” Gilani told MPs Friday. “If we have committed any mistakes, it does not mean that democracy or parliament should be punished."

Earlier that day President Asif Ali Zardari returned to the country after a brief visit to Dubai, either for a wedding or for medical treatment, according to which rumour you believe. Like his visit to the Gulf last month, the trip – and the speedy return - stoked rumours that he feared that the military might stage a coup.

US drone attacks in Pakistan resumed this week.

They were suspended for two months because of the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a Nato air strike, which contributed to a crisis in US-Pakistani relations.

Foreign military actions on Pakistani soil are not legal, although Islamabad turned a blind eye to drone attacks on alleged Taliban targets for years.

The government on Thursday condemned an attack that killed four people as a violation of sovereignty.

Those are rumours that the ruling People’s Party (PPP) seems more than happy to encourage, even if the government Friday denied reports that Gilani had made a “panicky” call to British High Commissioner Adam Thompson asking for the UK’s help if the military made a move.

The Pakistani military – the seventh biggest in the world - has form. It has staged four coups and ruled the country for much of its brief history. The last bout of military rule, under President Pervez Musharraf, only ended in 2008.

And the army rattled the politicians’ cage on Wednesday when it responded to criticism by Gilani with a thinly veiled threat.

“This has very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country,” a military statement said after Gilani slammed affidavits by army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and military intelligence boss Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha to the Supreme Court as “unconstitutional and illegal” because they did not have government clearance.

A meeting of corps commanders and principal staff officers at army HQ on Thursday to discuss “the prevailing situation and security operations in the country” won’t have done much to reassure the PPP and its allies, either.

The government has hit back, firing defence secretary Retired Lt. Gen. Naeem Khalid Lodhi, who is close to Kayani, and replacing him with a close Gilani aide, Nargis Sethi.

The prime minister has also called a meeting of the cabinet defence committee which Kayani is obliged to attend.

And the leader of the Awami National Party, Asfandyar Wali Khan, tabled a resolution backing the government and praising “the political leadership’s efforts to safeguard democracy”.

That is likely to be passed on Monday but the government may have a tougher ride in the courts, which, since the legal profession clashed with military ruler Musharraf, have become decidedly feisty and independent of those in power.

But there will be serious challenges to the Gilani and Zardari elsewhere on the same day.

A three-member judicial panel will resume hearings on the Memogate scandal – sparked by an alleged memo by the then-ambassador to Washington Hussain Haqqani asking for US help in the event of a coup – and will hear the government’s side.

And the Supreme Court will summon the government to explain why it failed to comply with earlier orders to restart a corruption investigation into Zardari, accused of taking millions in bribes when his wide Benazir Bhutto was prime minister.

That may be the focus of the government’s true concern and the military’s real hopes.

The court is seen as openly hostile to the government and the feeling is mutual. As head of state, Zardari enjoys immunity from prosecution and he and his wife benefited from a pardon towards the end of Musharraf’s reign.

But, if he is sacked, he could be jailed, an experience he is already familiar with, and his allies could be dragged down with him, a prospect that doubtless makes their attachment to democracy all the more intense.

So the government may fear a coup by proxy and an early election. That may also be what the army is hoping for, rather than plotting to roll out the tanks - in the near future, at least.

Another spanner may be thrown into Pakistan’s never smooth-running political works this month. Although he faces arrest if he sets foot in the country, Musharraf says he intends to return in order to campaign for his newly founded All Pakistan Muslim League in the run-up to elections, which have to take place by 2013.

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