Pakistani premier urges MPs to protect democracy

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Pakistan’s prime minister has appealed for support from parliament in a stand-off between his beleaguered government and the armed forces, saying MPs had to choose between “democracy and dictatorship”.

Tensions between Pakistan’s army and government have soared in recent days over a memo sent to Washington, raising fears that the army might stage a coup or support possible moves by the Supreme Court to oust the government.

The party of prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and president Asif Ali Zardari is the largest in the ruling coalition.

Opposition parties have also spoken out against any military takeover, but they would probably support early elections as a way out of the crisis. Mr Gilani hinted the government was considering early polls, saying “we will go to the masses if the situation worsens”.

He said parliament must choose between “democracy or dictatorship”.

Elections are due in around one year’s time, but Mr Zardari’s aides have said the government will not step down before Senate polls scheduled for March.

That vote is carried out by MPs and is expected to give Mr Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party a majority in the upper house, giving it significant political power for the next six years.

Foreign Secretary William Hague yesterday appealed for calm in Pakistan. He acknowledged, however, there were “a lot of risks” and urged all parties in the country to act in a way that “respects the constitution and helps ensure stability”.

The military and the government have been locked in a stand-off for months, but a scandal that erupted late last year after an unsigned memo was sent to Washington asking for its help in heading off a supposed coup has caused tensions to spike.

Earlier yesterday, two officials – one in Britain, the other in Pakistan – said Mr Gilani had called the top British diplomat in the country this week expressing fears that the Pakistani army might be about to stage a coup.

However, the British Foreign Office and Mr Gilani’s office denied any such phone call had been made. Mr Hague declined to comment on the reports.

The prime minister also asked High Commissioner Adam Thomson for Britain to support his embattled government, according to the officials.

The Pakistani government is unlikely to want to admit publicly to asking Britain for help because it would be taken as a sign that it was worried about its position.

Analysts say army chief Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has little appetite for a coup, but they say the generals may be happy to allow the Supreme Court to dismiss the government by “constitutional means”.

A Supreme Court commission is investigating the memo affair, which in theory could lead to Mr Zardari’s removal.

The court has also ordered the government to open corruption investigations into Mr Zardari dating back years. The government has refused. Earlier this week, the court said it could dismiss Mr Zardari and Mr Gilani over the case. Judges are convening on Monday for what could be a decisive session.

MPs loyal to the government also introduced a resolution in parliament expressing support for Mr Gilani’s cabinet, a move that would give it a symbolic boost.

Mr Zardari travelled last month to Dubai for medical reasons, triggering widely reported rumours he was on the verge of resigning.