The Pakistani military, angered by the inept handling of the country’s devastating floods and alarmed by a collapse of the economy, is pushing for a shake-up of the elected government, and in the longer term, even the removal of President Asif Ali Zardari and his top lieutenants.
The military, preoccupied by a war against militants and reluctant to assume direct responsibility for the economic crisis, has made clear it is not eager to take over the government, as it has many times before, military officials and politicians said.
But the government’s performance since the floods, which have left 20 million people homeless and the nation dependent on handouts from skeptical foreign donors, has laid bare the deep underlying tensions between military and civilian leaders.
American officials, too, say it has left them increasingly disillusioned with Mr. Zardari, a deeply unpopular president who was elected two and a half years ago on a wave of sympathy after the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
In a meeting on Monday that was played on the front page of Pakistan’s newspapers, the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, confronted the president and his prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, over incompetence and corruption in the government.
According to the press and Pakistani officials familiar with the conversation, the general demanded that they dismiss at least some ministers in the oversized 60-member cabinet, many of whom face corruption charges.
The civilian government has so far resisted the general’s demand. But the meeting was widely interpreted by the Pakistani news media, which has grown increasingly hostile to the president, as a rebuke to the civilian politicians and as having pushed the government to the brink.
After the meeting, the president’s office issued a statement, approved by all the men, saying they had agreed “to protect the democratic process and to resolve all issues in accordance with the constitution.”
A Pakistani official close to the president who was familiar with the conversation but did not want to be identified, said, “The president made it clear that he would not leave, come what may.”
“Sanity had prevailed,” the official added.
Since the floods, the government has defended its handling of the crisis, arguing that any government would have been overwhelmed by its scale.
Still, it is clear that General Kayani, head of the country’s most powerful institution, and the one that has taken the lead in the flood crisis, has ratcheted up the pressure on the government.
Having secured an exceptional three-year extension in his post from Mr. Zardari in July, General Kayani appears determined to prevent the economy from bankruptcy. Military officers in the main cities have been talking openly and expansively about their contempt for the Zardari government and what they term the economic calamity, an unusual candor, reporters and politicians said.
“The gross economic mismanagement by the government is at the heart of it,” said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of international relations at Islamabad University and a confidant of the military. “And there is the rising public disaffection with the Pakistani Peoples Party under Zardari and Gilani.”
As the military demands the overhaul, the Supreme Court is also pushing the government on the issue of corruption by threatening to remove the president’s immunity from prosecution, a move that would expose him to charges of corruption in an old money-laundering case in Switzerland.
The government has defied the court’s demand to write a letter to the Swiss government requesting a reopening of the case against Mr. Zardari, who served 11 years in prison in Pakistan on unproved corruption charges. On Monday, the court granted an extension of two weeks for the government to reconsider its position.
Much of the rising disdain for the government has to do with the perception among the media and the public of the callous and inept handling of the floods by the nation’s wealthy ruling class.
Mr. Gilani drew public ire for appearing at an ersatz camp for flood victims set up just for television cameras. It also did not help that newspapers reported that scores of cartons from the London luxury store Harrods had arrived at his residence in Lahore at the height of the flooding.
Mr. Zardari, meanwhile, was vilified for visiting his chateau in France as torrents of water wiped out millions of villagers in his home province, Sindh.
In his most recent visit to Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, the American special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the international community could not be expected to provide all the billions of dollars needed to repair the flood damage, a warning interpreted here as a rebuke of the civilian government and its mismanagement.
But Washington, not unlike Pakistan’s military, is caught, American officials say, because there is no appetite for a return of military rule. Nor is there desire to see the opposition politician and former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, resume power.
Mr. Sharif, who has also faced corruption charges during his career, is considered by Washington to be too close to some of Pakistan’s militant groups, whose members vote in Punjab, the Sharif electoral base.
As the head of the of the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, Mr. Sharif is not ready to come to the fore in any case, his aides say, because he does not want to be associated with the paralysis of the current government.
Of mounting concern to the Obama administration is the potential for serious unrest if the economy unspools further: inflation by some predictions will reach 25 percent in the coming period. The price of sugar has tripled, and the cost of flour has doubled since the Zardari government came to power.
In particular, Washington wants the government to raise taxes on the wealthy landed and commercial class, a shortcoming that has become especially galling as Pakistan’s dependence on foreign donors rises.
Pakistan’s revenues from taxes are among the lowest in the world: only 2 million Pakistanis of a population of 170 million pay income tax, according to estimates by the United States.
A report in a leading newspaper, The News, said Monday that Mr. Gilani and 25 of his ministers, including the finance minister, Hafiz Shaikh, did not pay income taxes at all, according to sworn affidavits by the ministers to the Election Commission of Pakistan.
The alarm about the economy was first sounded by Mr. Shaikh, a former officer of the World Bank, who told a meeting of political and military leaders last month that the government had enough money to pay only two months’ salaries. The economy was “teetering on the brink” before the floods but was now heading for the “abyss,” Mr. Shaikh was quoted as saying.
The military officers who attended were astounded, Mr. Hussain and others informed of the meeting said, and have pressed the government for changes, politicians and diplomats said.
As the military maneuvers for change, it is not immune from criticism. Defense spending is budgeted at 13.6 percent of total expenditures in 2011, in line with past yearly expenditures even as the civilian population suffers.
The defense budget remains beyond public scrutiny, a fact that increasingly irks the public.
“Do we even know how much it costs taxpayers each year to make possible the office, the home, the car fleets, attendants, guest houses and other amenities that are enjoyed by the army chief or even a corps commander?” asked Babar Sattar, a lawyer who often writes about corruption.