Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari was in Dubai Thursday for a brief scheduled visit, an aide said, against a backdrop of mounting tension as his government faces new challenges to its precarious rule.
The one-day trip came after a confrontation between Pakistan’s civilian leaders and the military over a probe into the government’s role in a scandal centred on a mysterious memo that sought US help in curbing the army’s power.
Pakistan has been under military dictatorships for about half its history since independence in 1947, its civilian leaders thrown out in three coups.
A planned meeting of corps commanders and principal staff officers was held at the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi on Thursday.
“The prevailing situation and security operations in the country were discussed,” said a senior security official, without giving further details.
Although Pakistan’s government now looks dangerously isolated, another coup is unlikely and early elections, possibly in the first half of this year, are a more plausible outcome, analysts say.
A close aide to Zardari told AFP that the president had gone to Dubai for a wedding “and may also have (a) routine medical check-up”.
“He will return tomorrow (Friday),” the aide said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media.
Zardari, who has a long-standing heart condition, spent more than a week in a Dubai hospital for treatment last month in a trip which triggered a frenzy of speculation and coup rumours.
The aide said the latest trip was a “private visit” and not linked to the crisis which erupted Wednesday when the army reacted angrily to criticism from Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani over a probe into the “Memogate” furore.
The scandal centres on an unsigned memo allegedly sent by an aide of Zardari to the US military last May, apparently to avert a possible coup in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy SEALs in Pakistan.
The memo pitted the powerful army against Zardari’s weak civilian administration and the Supreme Court is now tasked with deciding if the government endorsed the note, and if so, if it can remain in power.
But the accusation by the prime minister in Chinese media that the chiefs of the army and main intelligence agency had failed to make submissions to the court through proper government channels set the civilian leaders on a path for confrontation and was bluntly denied by top brass.
The army warned the comments could have “grievous consequences for the country”, triggering the immediate sacking of the defence secretary — a top government bureaucrat considered too close to the generals.
Gilani sought to minimise confrontation in the immediate aftermath of the latest row, but analysts believe the government could see its real test come when the court investigating the memo returns its findings.
Zardari has had difficult relations with the courts since he initially refused to reinstate the chief justice on coming to power in 2008 elections held after the assassination of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
That relationship has only worsened as his civilian administration has clung to power through repeated crises, with the judiciary bent on pursuing a host of long-running corruption cases against Zardari and other government figures.
The Supreme Court two weeks ago set up the Memogate commission. Top intelligence chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha has called for a “forensic examination” of the memo.
The government is due to set out its position to the commission on Monday and its findings are expected to be presented by the end of the month.