Beleaguered Pakistani President Zardari’s departure for Dubai on Thursday (Jan 12)  led to considerable speculation in many capitals that  Pakistan was on the brink of yet another  military coup – this time led by the inscrutable General Kayani. However, at the time of writing this comment, the military take-over does not appear as imminent and President Zardari is  expected  to return to his country on Friday after what has been described as a ‘scheduled personal’ visit to Dubai.

But the tension in Pakistan between the civilian government in Islamabad led by the Zardari-Gilani combine and  the Pakistani  ‘fauj’ symbolized by  GHQ  Rawalpindi      is palpable and has reached the tipping point. In a candid interview to a Chinese media outlet, PM Gilani  accused Army Chief General Kayani and the ISI Chief, Lt. Gen Shuja Pasha of having violated the constitution over the ‘memogate’ scandal and this was a very unusual assertion by a civilian PM in Pakistan. Rarely has the Pak Army Chief been upbraided in public by a civilian PM and the insult was compounded by the fact that this occurred when Gen. Kayani  was on an official visit to China.

The response from GHQ was predictably irate  and  the Pak Army  released an official statement that  warned of “grievous consequences” to the Gilani remarks. The latter raised the bar by sacking the Pak Defense Secretary  - retired Lt. Gen Naeem Lodhi  - who was perceived to be closer to GHQ than the civilian government and the stand-off between the civilian PM  and the powerful  Army Chief continues.

While the Gilani-Kayani tension is one part of the institutional brinkmanship, the third player in the Pakistani power matrix is the judiciary led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry which is now assuming a far more  autonomous and active role than ever before. In what is being described in Pakistan as an unprecedented step, the Pak Supreme Court  has put the Zardari-Gilani government in the dock over the  Musharraf era National  Reconciliation Ordnance (NRO)  that had given a blanket amnesty  to politicians, political workers and bureaucrats who had been accused of various crimes including corruption  murder and  terrorism amongst other transgressions. Passed in October 2007 by the Musharraf led government , the Pak Supreme Court declared the NRO unconstitutional in December 2009 and this has placed many politicians including President Zardari open to judicial investigation.

President Zardari has not accepted this directive by the Supreme Court and has  invoked the  immunity which  his high office allows for – but the fact that the highest court in the land has passed strictures against the President and the PM of the country  is an extreme example of institutional discord. Paradoxically all three institutions – the Army, the civilian government and the judiciary have expressed their faith and commitment to the Constitution but their interpretations about their respective role  and the primacy of the elected representative is being fiercely contested – and this evident in the brinkmanship that is now on display.

The possibility of an overt coup by Gen Kayani and his corps commanders is raised repeatedly but  my personal assessment is that this is an unlikely and low probability exigency. Yes, the Pak fauj will engage in high visibility  moves in the public domain – as for instance the appointment of a new  Commander to the 111  Brigade in Rawalpindi –the so-called ‘coup brigade’ but many constraints restrict the Pak Army from doing what Generals Ayub Khan, Zia and Musharraf  did in the past.

Earlier coups in Pakistan were  swift and binary with no contest worth the mention. The Pak Supreme Court usually provided the legal cover by invoking the doctrine of necessity to legalize extra-legal actions by the Army such as coups. This doctrine flows from the axiom which states: “ 'that which is otherwise not lawful is made lawful by necessity'.”

In addition , earlier coups in Pakistan were either directly supported or tacitly endorsed  by the US and its principal regional allies including Saudi Arabia. This time in January 2012,  US-Pak relations have reached an all time  low  and the  White House is not going to lend its support to any anti-democratic move by the  Pak fauj.

Pakistan’s poltics have been further animated by the anti Zardadri, anti-army position adopted by former PM Nawaz Sharief – and this is echoed in the high-decibel orientation of Imran Khan the new sensation in Pak politics. And when Gen Musharraf returns to his country in th next few weeks, the political landscape will become even more TV friendly!If the current internal turbulence in Pakistan is taken to its logical and most desirable conclusion, then the  discredited Pak fauj must return to the barracks after enjoying six decades of  primacy – and pillage of the state coffers. This alas is unlikely to happen given the virulent inter-party bitterness in Pakistan. Both the Army and now the judiciary have been wooed by the individual parties for short term gains and this pattern has to be radically altered. This in turn can happen only if the people  of  Pakistan are not  misled by divisive and opportunistic  politics.

The virulent and violent ideologies nurtured by the right wing  and  selectively  supported by the GHQ   is the principal challenge to the Pakistani polity. The three major institutions in Pakistan – the legislature, the judiciary and the military need to find the appropriate balance so that  participative democracy gradually  redresses the many omissions that followed the first coup of 1958.  The January 16 Supreme Court hearing on the NRO  may be more critical than the  ruckus created by the Zardari visit to Dubai.